In Sigal Samuel’s recent novel The Mystics of Mile End everyone is looking for a message. There’s the Meyer family, with David interpreting the vague murmurs of his erratic heart; his son Lev deciphering the flower caught in his teacher’s bicycle; and his daughter Samara seeking keys to climb the Tree of Life in order to fulfill her Kabbalistic journey. Lev and Samara’s childhood friend Alex listens to everything from stars to dishwashers in the attempt to intercept messages from extraterrestrial life. And Mr. Katz hooks up a series of tin can telephones in his old oak tree presumably in order to receive messages from God.
What drives this novel is not necessarily religious crisis, but rather a crisis of interpretation. No one is stricken with lack of faith per se, that ever-present theme of Protestantism. (Even budding astronomer Alex, an atheist, is portrayed as a most unshakable believer in life beyond planet Earth.) Instead, they employ their faith in God, logic, intellectual discovery, scientific instruments, etc., to decode symbols they encounter. The question is not “Is there a God?” but rather, can we ever reliably interpret the messages we receive? Follow-up question, do those messages ever lead to some understanding of what lies beyond us?
Samara, Sammy to her friends and family, wavers in religious practice. Her mother had been the backbone of the family’s (Orthodox Jewish) religious life, but when she passes away, their father’s textual, academic approach to religion took over her and her brother’s spiritual upbringing. Samara goes about studying for her bat mitzah in secret, and when her father fails to be perceptibly moved by her recitation of the sacred text she ditches her religious aspirations and adopts his culturally Jewish agnosticism.
David Meyer’s major academic book is titled The Unorthodox Kabbalah, and that really sums up the tension in The Mystics of Mile End. What’s at stake is the notion of the sacred. Does religious activity consist in contemplating a series of philosophical ideas with a God as their ultimate reference point? Or is it a mystical interaction with meaning in the world that leads eventually to divine knowledge?
(Nota bene- I’m gonna argue that it ends up being neither of those.)
That’s what Sammy is dealing with. And that is the hermeneutical crux of the book.
(And in case you’re wondering at this point, the word “hermeneutics” is the fancypants way of saying interpreting texts.)
It is almost too perfect that Samara runs up against Roland Barthes’s essay “The Death of the Author” in her lit theory class. And then rejects the premise of a dead author for the promise of living mystical messages leading beyond the world.
The thing about hermeneutics is that it emerges from the interpretation of religious texts. An activity that would always have related back to God, and would always have looked for a permanent meaning. Essentially, it has always been an attempt answer to life’s great ontological questions (Who are we? Why are we here?) through careful dissection of The Word.
Even after textual inquiry becomes pretty fully secularized, we still have this Author, who is a God-like figure. And we’re still trying to answer the pesky quandaries of life. There is no spiritual probing as such, but there is still a remnant of the religious in that we think we can decipher a permanent, stable, fixed meaning within the text.
Not. So. Says Barthes.
According to Roland, there is no Author-God that we can refer back to when we’re performing our hermeneutic activity. There is whatever meaning we gather in the act of reading.
Everyone’s head explodes. There are riots in the streets. It’s your basic tweed-thrashing brawl in the extended version of Academics Gone Wild.
Because this is a big deal, taking meaning away from an ultimate source and putting it in the hands of regular folk like you and me. (Okay, not totally regular folk. Folk who do things like close reading. But still. Mere mortals.) Not quoted in Samuel’s novel, but famously written in the essay, Barthes claims that “The death of the author is the birth of the reader.”
Samara resolutely finds this to be utter bullshit (and I’ve got to hand it to her…when you read this stuff, it really does sound that way…) and this in part leads to her decision to quit university, and to commence a Kabbalistic journey up the Tree of Life, which entails finding and interpreting signs from God.
It’s important that these are two vastly different forms of interpretation coming into a direct clash in her life. One is textual and insists upon the reader’s role in meaning formation. The other is spiritual and seeks a path to God through signs in the world. Both entail deep individual involvement, it’s a question of where you’re headed, what realm you’re trying to access – the great cosmic infinite, or the finite human realm. (More on this later.)
Samara’s sudden interest in Kabbalah is inherited from her father, who leaves a manuscript indicating that he had begun the mystical journey himself. Thing is, this whole business of the Tree of Life is not necessarily good for one’s (physical, mental, emotional) health. As the Meyer family’s neighbor and Hebrew teacher Mr. Glassman explains to the young Lev and later to Alex, traditionally, you must be a forty year old married man to undertake such study. Why? Well, disregarding the male thing, it’s because you have to be anchored in reality, otherwise, “when you are studying it, it is easy to become obsessed…Suddenly everything you see looks like a sign from above.” This is exactly what happens to Samara, who is so caught up in her mystical path to God that she becomes swept up against her will.
The overpowering nature of mystical messages and their interpretation is seen through Samara’s relationship to her childhood friend, then girlfriend, Jenny. After a tragic event (which I’m not going to name because I’m not a spoiler of great books) Samara is unable to accept the kindness of her loved ones, particularly Lev and Jenny. So, with Samara preferring to interpret rather than to relate, Jenny becomes the first “key” in her mystical ascent. “Ani, the receptacle of divine light, but never the progenitor” who is devoid of her own sight and her own colors. She is flattened by the immense burden of symbolism.
Obviously that doesn’t work because people aren’t symbols, they’re people. (Which you will know if you’ve ever tried to turn a person into a plot point in the great novel of Your Life. Totally don’t do that. Or, well, proceed with caution.)
At the end of her portion of the story, Samara undergoes an abrupt reversal. As if coming out of a daze, she suddenly realizes that her beloved Jenny has left and that she was not a symbolic figure at all.
In a horrible flash, it came to me: Zimmerman was right! Barthes was right! I had rebelled against it, but it was true. We wanted to believe that, underneath it all, a meaning, a plan, persisted – but this idea could not, should not be trusted. The tears I’d been choking back for months poured down my face now, an unstoppable flood. To believe there was a plan just for me – to make keys out of people and means out of ends – what an idiot I’d been! I looked at the blank canvas and hated myself for what I’d done to Jenny. She was not the beautiful maiden without eyes. My need for a person who fit that description was what had robbed her skin of its color. But the color was there, had always been there, though for months I hadn’t wanted to see it…
But it is too late. Samara has already lost her grounding, and by the time she wants to leave the Tree of Life, it is already pulling her along, pulling her upward. The next time we encounter her is at her childhood home, unmoving and unspeaking, driven mad (mad? It’s not totally clear) by the immanence of the divine infinite.
In the end, it is Mr. Glassman who brings Samara back to earth. She is climbing Mr. Katz’s tin can telephone tree during a storm, and he runs out into the rain. Standing near the tree, he cries out the story of his first meeting with his wife after they had been separated and deported into the camps during the Second World War. Years later, in New York, they are finally connected, against all probability. But the future Mrs. Glassman appears to him wearing a yellow raincoat. Mr. Glassman interprets this as a logical problem (they love each other in part through mathematics and logical proofs), and he understands the raincoat – the yellowness of the raincoat – as an impossibility. Simply put, the raincoat is pretty. But life is not pretty. Therefore wearing the yellow raincoat can only be seen as a great renunciation of the rules and the logic of life. A renunciation of life itself.
Yet he only later realizes his mistake, as he shouts to Samara atop the tree.
What if…the yellow raincoat was not a great big NO to life? What if what she was trying to say to me was YES? What is she saw, all those years ago, something it took me decades to understand: that the world is not pretty, but human beings need to try to make it so. Not by escaping into some higher world, not by seeking some invisible sign up in the sky – but by seeking it here, here on the earth, here in the people around you –
With this, Samara is able to step down (to “fly” down) from Mr. Katz’s tree, and to return to life.
There is hermeneutics of text and there is hermeneutics of life, echoing one another throughout the book. What happens when Barthes declares the death of the author is not the destruction of meaning. Far from it. Rather, this death bestows the powers of textual significance upon the reader, and recognizes an unending number of readings. Meaning is not top down. It is not something given from on high by an Author-God.
This seems antitheological and atheistic. But it is not. Or at least, not in Sigal Samuel’s rendering. Because this restructuring of textual interpretation has great implications for a religious life. What this would mean when understood outside of textual questions is that the interpretation of the sacred can be undertaken through human relationships with one another, not through human relationships to the Divine.
Lev comes to the conclusion, during his brief acquaintance with Valérie, a former student and lover of his father’s, that “It was not from on high but from on low, not through miracles but through human hands that the divine plan was carried out.”
This is no nihilistic death of god. Rather than seeking the keys to divine wisdom – a wisdom that is abstract, lying above and beyond humanity – wisdom must be sought in the world. And in other people.
While Barthes has meant to secularize the formerly sacred aspects of hermeneutic practice – portrayed perfectly in David Meyer’s secular reading of sacred texts – Sigal Samuel has rendered sacred the reading of secular life. If the fear of mystical interpretation of the world is that everything may become a sign – and that this infinite significance is an escapism – then the infinite significance becomes a powerful means of living when not inherently directed toward an abstract realm of the sacred.
This makes sense if you read Sigal Samuel’s interview with Electric Literature, in which she claims that her reading of religious and secular texts “obligate” her in the same way.
Something from “The Death of the Author” that is not quoted in the book but that I find important:
Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.
Infinity is a very powerful religious concept. God is infinite. Whereas His creations are finite. And yet if we take Barthes seriously, and if we agree that to remove the Author is to give infinite interpretations to the Reader. If we then continue the analogy between the Author and God, what we’ve done is to effectively place infinity here in the world. In our lives. In our relationships. In our own infinitely complex and everchanging knowledge of who we are and why we’re here. (Rather than answering these ontological questions once-and-for-all.)
Here is what’s at stake for us. Hermeneutics is a sacred activity.
I have never really understood why it is that people who study and write about literature are…well…the way they are… It’s not a Humanities thing. Philosophers aren’t like that. Linguists aren’t like that. Ditto historians.
People who do literature are deeply attached to their readings of texts. It seems like egotism and it probably is. And it seems incomprehensible that people should be so unyielding and combative and proud about matters of fiction. It’s. Fiction. You know. The stuff that isn’t real. Why does it become a matter of such stark importance? Tomayto tomahto, right? It’s not life or death.
But. Then. It kind of is.
It seems that no one is willing to admit that the interpretation of text, no matter how far removed from religion, is a sacred activity if taken seriously. It is the creation of meaning.
And if we hold to our interpretations it is not because we are playing God (or playing Author), but because we are participating fully in this infinitely expanding universe of significance. This infinite signifying.
That is what this novel picks up on. The recognition (and this is not new in and of itself but the way she’s doing it here is) that reading life is an extension of reading text and vice versa. We’re all looking for messages all the time, and the messages from Above and Beyond are not necessarily the ones that matter. The Above and Beyond will take care of itself. It’s the infinitely complex messages – the signs and symbols – from those around us that impact the way we live. To assume the birth of the reader, and to be a reader oneself, is to assume one’s sacred capacity to interpret the world.