There is an adage in Hebrew that says, ‘the muse disappears when the canon roars’. As a rule, I don’t have trouble finding my muse. She finds me most of the time. It’s not that I never have trouble writing or photographing. Sometimes it’s hard to get what’s on my mind onto the paper. But usually, I get to work after something has caught my fancy. I don’t have to go looking for inspiration.
And yet, at times of war or tragedy, my thoughts are on the tragedy. And I lose touch with creativity. This time, with the start of the violence, I had thoughts so terrible that I couldn’t bear them. Not just thoughts… dreams too. I would wake up in the middle of the night after a particularly depressing dream, and couldn’t fall asleep again. And often, during the day… I would find myself staring out… not focused on anything… or through my window… and my heart would be filled with sorrow. After a while of this, all I wanted, was not to think. But that’s a bit of a problem for me. Because I’m used to thinking. I think just about all the time. So I tried to find a way not to think of those specific things that bring on overwhelming unhappiness. And one easy solution presented itself to me. The situation in which I am least likely to think my own thoughts is when I am studying, or reading the thoughts of someone else. So I started reading.
In the past few years, my primary reading interest has been current fine literature. I’ve been trying to find new writers who have the impact of the literary giants I loved in the past. I thought it would be a good way for me to keep in touch with what concerns the generation that is dealing with the current problems of life. And to better understand the problems and the challenges of those people who are starting out now, living their adult lives, and those who’re right in the middle of it all. I have to admit that I did not have much success in my quest. But in the last half year, I started getting the feeling that I understood the issues of the day better than I had before I started this project.
But now, with this new intention of redirecting my own thoughts, reading fine literature did not do the job. If I read about the problems of others… or even a page turning mystery… my thoughts would often return to the problems of Israel, and to the threats to my own safety, and the safety of those I loved. For each day there was news of some pal who had suddenly knifed an innocent victim, waiting for a bus, or walking down the street, lost in his or her own thoughts.
So I moved from fine literature to biographies. I always have a few books around that I haven’t yet read. Sometimes I will read a review that interests me, and buy the book ‘for later’. I used to have quite a pile of books that I kept for ‘retirement’. But I have been retired for some time now, and I’ve read most of those books, starting when I had my first heart attack some years back, and had nothing to do while I recuperated. But recently, there has been a new fashion of ‘give and take’ public libraries. A stand or a closet… sometimes even a number of closets that are set up in the public domain, and the public is encouraged either to take a book for free, or invest a book for which one has no need, and so these little public libraries offer free reading material to passers by, and are continuously being replenished, without any official staff to maintain order. I have run into quite a few such libraries and occasionally found interesting books.
The first biography I started reading was the autobiography of Arthur Miller, who had always interested me, since his first plays were being performed. It was one of the books I had on my bookshelf, waiting for the appropriate time. His recollections were very interesting and I felt I got to know him quite well through the autobiography. His attitudes and choices made fascinating reading. Moreover, he seemed honest and straight forward, and I felt I was getting to know the real man, which was quite different from his public image as I remembered it. I underlined many sentences as I made my way through the book, and even read some of those selections to my friends. And after that, I went on to read a biography of Gertrude Stein. These books really did help me to redirect my thoughts.
While still reading the book on Gertrude Stein, I saw an autobiography of Isaac Asimov in one of those free public libraries. I read that one after reading the very impressive Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant. He served as president of the United States during the 1870s. And previous to that, was the chief of staff of the U.S. army during the civil war between the states. I had first become aware of this volume when reading praise of it by Bob Dylan, who had read it in the 60s. Though I have always found interest in history, and had read a bit of American history, this book helped me to understand the US civil war better than anything else I had read before.
Isaac Asimov was an American professor of biochemistry, who became famous as a writer of science fiction, and later as a popular teacher of science. He was one of the most prolific writers ever. He wrote or edited more than 500 books. He was famous for offering the reader historical background in the explanation of scientific concepts and inventions. Reading his autobiography, I was delighted by his modest description of his own life, his learning processes and the way in which he worked. In fact, as I read about certain questions he had about the Jewish religion… questions to which he did not find answers, though he himself was Jewish, I deeply regretted that he had already died, and I was unable to write to him and explain a mysterious ceremony that he had seen, and never understood. As I read about these lives, I was surprised by the difference between their public image, and what I thought they might be like when I read their works as compared to my impression when reading of their actual lives. When I was younger, long before the invention of the internet and Wikipedia, I was not that interested in the private lives of writers and thinkers. I had the feeling that I had gotten to know them through their work. Nowadays, when I run into a new writer or painter or photographer, I often look them up on the internet. It seems that I know a lot more about the people whose work interests me than I did in my youth. Such knowledge was less available then to the casual reader.
Usually, I like to write what I have to say in a single post. But this time, I have to conclude with a ‘to be continued’ bottom line. I want to thank those who’ve commented on previous posts, and those who’ve written me mails. Thanks to Chana for these pictures of me, here on this post. The situation here in Jerusalem right now is so difficult for me, that I find it hard to write… I am trying to get back on track again. I hope to answer some of the questions I’ve been asked in further writing.