September 17



My holiday excursion into John Banville's
splendid little book about Prague continues (see September 2 for another piece resulting from that read).

"… a visit to the Old Jewish Cemetery," he writes, "a pilgrimage every traveller to Prague must make… a Dantesque scene, thronged with tourists shuffling along specified walkways between the jumbled, moss-grown tombstones, the estimated number of which varies between 12,000 and 20,000, depending on which guide-book you choose to trust. The oldest stone, from 1439, is that of Rabbi Avigdor Kar, or Kara, or Karo; the latest, marking the grave of Moses Beck, is dated May 17th, 1787. Buried here also are two of the leading Jews of the Emperor Rudolf's time, the financier Mordechai Meisl, richest Praguer of his day – a great philanthropist, he built three synagogues, one of which bears his name, as well as public baths, a hospital, and the Jewish Town Hall, overlooking the cemetery, which has a Hebrew clock the hands of which turn backwards, a detail not missed by Apollinaire in his famous hallucinatory poem "Zone" – and Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (?1520-1609), one of the greatest Jewish scholars of the Renaissance, and Prague's Chief Rabbi from 1597 until his death."

It is the naming of Judah Loew that draws me to this response.

"Rabbi Loew," Banville continues, "is the subject of many legends, especially those featuring Yossel the Golem, the giant clay man whom Loew is said to have fashioned from a lump of earth, as God created Adam from the dust of Elohim" (I am not sure that Banville has got his Judaics quite right here, but let that be).

"The story goes that in the year 1850 a certain friar by the name of Thaddeus, a fanatical anti-Semite, raised accusations of superstitious rituals and blood sacrifices against the Prague Jews. Rabbi Loew appealed to Yahweh for help, and in a dream was instructed to create the Golem as a protector of the faithful against the Christian mob. He summoned his son-in-law, Isaac ben Simon, and a disciple, the Levite Yakob ben Chaim Sasson, to represent respectively the elements of fire and water, while the Rabbi himself was the element of air; the Golem, of course, would be the final element, earth. After the three had performed the intricate ceremony of religious purification they went to the banks of the Vltava at midnight and kneaded a human figure from river clay. First Rabbi Loew instructed Isaac the priest to walk seven times around the Golem, starting from the right, chanting Psalms and reciting magical formulas and letter combinations as he went; then Yakob the Levite was ordered to circle the figure another seven times, starting from the left. After this, Rabbi Loew himself circled the Golem, which, feeling the effects of the three elements, began to glow with the heat of life. Finally, the Rabbi inserted a shem hameforash, a slip of paper on which was written the unutterable name of God, under the Golem's tongue, and the creature rose to his feet, a living homunculus ready to do his master's bidding."

The Hebrew word "golem" (גולם) appears twice in the Talmud, once to describe a woman who has not yet conceived, the other for a jug that requires polishing; the root means "rudiment", or "embryo", or merely earthly "substance", and also makes a solitary appearance in the Bible itself, in Psalm 139, verse 16, to be precise:

גָּלְמִי רָאוּ עֵינֶיךָ וְעַל סִפְרְךָ כֻּלָּם יִכָּתֵבוּ
יָמִים יֻצָּרוּ ולא אֶחָד בָּהֶם

My substance was not hidden from you,
when I was made in secret,
and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

The next verse is also worth quoting; though it does not repeat the usage of the word, it does complete the intent and meaning of the language:

Your eyes saw my substance, though it was imperfect;
and in your book all my members were written,
which continued to be fashioned,
while as yet there were still none of them.

A hint, perhaps more than just a hint, and one to which I shall return, that the original Frankenstein did not belong to Mary Shelley, but to King David.

But first let me pick up Banville's tale where I left it, his observation that "Rabbi Loew was a great scriptural scholar, and also an adept of the Cabala, a mystical philosophy based on philosophical writings which originated among the Jews in thirteenth-century Spain, and which had a widespread vogue during the Emperor Rudolf's reign. Cabalistic teaching reached well beyond the Ghetto, and was a strong influence in Neoplatonism, for instance, and even on the magical thinking of John Dee" - the original 007; and if you would like to know more about that surprising piece of information, go to my novel "The Plausible Tragedy of Roderigo Lopes", due for publication very soon. "Rudolf, needless to say, was deeply interested, and in 1592 summoned Rabbi Loew to the Hradčany…" (I cannot resist interjecting that the local name for it is the Pražský hrad, Pražska being the Czech name for the town, a minorly spelling-varied version of my own ancestral village in Poland, just two hundred and ninety miles to the north-east)… "and had a lengthy, secret meeting alone with him. How one longs to have a record of that conversation.

"The Cabala might be said to be the underground religion of the Jews. It is a creation myth and a Jewish form of Messianism, and incorporates numerology and a complex science of alphabetical combinations known as gematria. The legend of the Golem's creation speaks of complex rituals in which permutations of the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter symbol of God's name, were of paramount importance. From this and other hints it seems clear that a Golem story is a debased, popular version of a Cabalistic creation myth.

"How peculiar, then, that the never less than dogmatic Ripellino [see footnote 1] should insist that the legend of Prague's Golem 'goes back no further than Romanticism', making its appearance first in a five-volume collection of tall tales and anecdotes, in German, not Yiddish, entitled Sippurim, published by Wolf Pascheles in the middle of the nineteenth century. There is no mention of the Golem, Ripellino points out, in David Gans's 1592 chronicle of the Jews of Prague, Zamach David ("Descendants of David"), nor in a biography of Rabbi Loew published in 1718.

"However," Banville concludes, "Ripellino is speaking only of the written legend. Yossel the Golem is as old as the Prague Ghetto…"

Indeed he is. "Yossel the Golem” - the kosher version of Frankenstein's monster - "had both a benign and a bad side. Having thwarted Friar Thaddeus, he took to patrolling the streets and back lanes of the Ghetto, keeping guard over the houses of the poor so that no malignant goy could come creeping in to hide the bodies of Christian children in Jewish homes. One night he surprised the butcher Havlíĉek carrying the corpse of a baby hidden in the belly of a slaughtered pig into the house of Mordechai Meisl, to whom he was indebted, with the intention of denouncing the banker as a ritual murderer.

"There came, however, that Friday evening when Yossel went on the rampage. Rabbi Loew had forgotten to give him his Sabbath eve instructions for next day, and in his boredom Yossel ran amok, stamping everything in his path to pieces, until the Rabbi was called upon to quell his monster. Eventually, like a pet that refuses to be house-trained, the Golem had to go. One night at the beginning of 1593 – the designation of a particular year is a nice touch on the part of the legend-maker – Rabbi Loew instructed Yossel to sleep not in his own bed in the Rabbi's house but to spend the night in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue. Two hours after midnight, Rabbi Loew, with his henchmen Isaac and Yakob, climbed to the loft where the Golem lay sleeping. First the Rabbi removed the shem from under the creature's tongue, then the three men performed the same ceremony by which they had brought the Golem to life, but this time in reverse, and by morning all that was left of poor Yossel was a pile of clay."

If only it might have been that easy for Dr Frankenstein as well; but then we would never had the psychological tale, which in the end is so much more powerful than the mythological one.

"The Rabbi himself met a more poetic end, when he bent to savour the perfume of a rose his granddaughter had presented to him, only to discover that Death himself was hiding among the petals. A better way to go, certainly, than the ignominious end that befell, literally, his Polish colleague, the famous miracle-working Rabbi Elijah of Chelm, called Israel Baal Shem Tov, who had his own Golem. When the latter's time was up, Rabbi Elijah chose to destroy him by erasing the first letter of the word emet ("truth") graven on the creature's brow, leaving the word met, that is, death. However, the Rabbi made the mistake of ordering the Golem to erase the letter himself; when he did so, he turned back at once into a load of clay, which promptly collapsed on Rabbi Elijah, crushing him."

So much for Banville. This picture of the Golem takes us in two directions, and I shall follow both. The first is his transition, midway through the legend, from a Creation Myth of Adam composed from the dust, into an alternate version of that other great myth, which began with Cain the son of Adam, and ended as the Wandering Jew – and which, as we shall see, becomes the fate of both Dr. Frankenstein and his Golem, which is the second direction I shall follow. Given that I am writing about literature, and having been citing literature citing literature to do so, let me follow the Wandering Jew through Mark Twain's portrait of him, pilfered mostly from Wm. C. Grimes, in chapter 54 of his "The Innocents Abroad":

"And so we came at last to another wonder of deep and abiding interest - the veritable house where the unhappy wretch once lived who has been celebrated in song and story for more than eighteen hundred years as the Wandering Jew. On the memorable day of the Crucifixion he stood in this old doorway with his arms akimbo, looking out upon the struggling mob that was approaching, and when the weary Saviour would have sat down and rested him a moment, pushed him rudely away and said, 'Move on!' The Lord said, 'Move on, thou, likewise,' and the command has never been revoked from that day to this. All men know how that miscreant upon whose head that just curse fell has roamed up and down the wide world, for ages and ages, seeking rest and never finding it - courting death but always in vain - longing to stop, in city, in wilderness, in desert solitudes, yet hearing always that relentless warning to march - march on!

"They say - do these hoary traditions - that when Titus sacked Jerusalem and slaughtered eleven hundred thousand Jews in her streets and by-ways, the Wandering Jew was seen always in the thickest of the fight, and that when battle-axes gleamed in the air, he bowed his head beneath them; when swords flashed their deadly lightnings, he sprang in their way; he bared his breast to whizzing javelins, to hissing arrows, to any and to every weapon that promised death and forgetfulness, and rest. But it was useless - he walked forth out of the carnage without a wound. And it is said that five hundred years afterward he followed Mahomet when he carried destruction to the cities of Arabia, and then turned against him, hoping in this way to win the death of a traitor. His calculations were wrong again. No quarter was given to any living creature but one, and that was the only one of all the host that did not want it. He sought death five hundred years later, in the wars of the Crusades, and offered himself to famine and pestilence at Ascalon. He escaped again - he could not die.

"These repeated annoyances could have at last but one effect - they shook his confidence. Since then the Wandering Jew has carried on a kind of desultory toying with the most promising of the aids and implements of destruction, but with small hope, as a general thing. He has speculated some in cholera and railroads, and has taken almost a lively interest in infernal machines and patent medicines. He is old, now, and grave, as becomes an age like his; he indulges in no light amusements save that he goes sometimes to executions, and is fond of funerals. There is one thing he can not avoid; go where he will about the world, he must never fail to report in Jerusalem every fiftieth year. Only a year or two ago he was here for the thirty-seventh time since Jesus was crucified on Calvary. They say that many old people, who are here now, saw him then, and had seen him before. He looks always the same - old, and withered, and hollow-eyed, and listless, save that there is about him something which seems to suggest that he is looking for some one, expecting some one - the friends of his youth, perhaps. But most of them are dead, now. He always pokes about the old streets looking lonesome, making his mark on a wall here and there, and eyeing the oldest buildings with a sort of friendly half interest; and he sheds a few tears at the threshold of his ancient dwelling, and bitter, bitter tears they are. Then he collects his rent and leaves again. He has been seen standing near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on many a starlight night, for he has cherished an idea for many centuries that if he could only enter there, he could rest. But when he approaches, the doors slam to with a crash, the earth trembles, and all the lights in Jerusalem burn a ghastly blue! He does this every fifty years, just the same. It is hopeless, but then it is hard to break habits one has been eighteen hundred years accustomed to. The old tourist is far away on his wanderings, now. How he must smile to see a pack of blockheads like us, galloping about the world, and looking wise, and imagining we are finding out a good deal about it! He must have a consuming contempt for the ignorant, complacent asses that go skurrying about the world in these railroading days and call it traveling. When the guide pointed out where the Wandering Jew had left his familiar mark upon a wall, I was filled with astonishment. It read: 'S. T. - 1860 - X.' All I have revealed about the Wandering Jew can be amply proven by reference to our guide."

"The kosher version of Frankenstein's monster", I wrote earlier, and now we can begin to see how the ancient myths of Adam and Cain have been continued down the ages, through the legends of the Golem and the Wandering Jew. Did Mary Shelley know all this when she created both in both her "monster" and that "monster's" creator, Victor Frankenstein?

Quoting two great authors like Banville and Twain, is entirely legitimate; I am not so certain about quoting myself, especially from my own diary, but the lines are pertinent, so here is what I wrote there, on March 11th 2002 as it happens:

"I looked up Mary Shelley, as today is the anniversary of the publication of 'Frankenstein', and was reminded of how the book came into being. The winter of 1816, when the volcano Tambora erupted, and its impact was to reduce the world to so much snow and ice an estimated million people died of it (the pursuit across the ice at the end of the novel was probably not unconnected).

"Mary and Percy Bysshe went to visit Lord Byron in Switzerland, where Byron's personal physician was also staying, John Polidori by name. They read aloud from a German book of ghost stories, after which Byron challenged them all to write their own. B and PB failed to deliver. Mary came up with the idea for Frankenstein, but didn't begin writing it. Polidori fulfilled the challenge, writing a tale he called 'The Vampyre', and which he then worked up into a novel and published three years later. Given that we know this tale as the origins of the Gothic novel, given that 'Frankenstein' wasn't actually written then, why is Polidori so overlooked, and Bram Stoker, who wrote his 'Dracula' decades later, regarded as the patriarch of vampire fiction?"

To which I would now add that actually Polidori took his idea from Byron, who wrote a vampire story in "The Giaour", which he published in 1813 – that, and not the "Unfinished Novel" of 1819, which is also a vampire story.

All of which brings me back to the question posited above, one that has been occupying me for some while, throughout this essay, but already many months ago, when I re-read "Frankenstein" as part of my background work for "A Small Drop Of Ink", my "Life of Lord Byron": to what extent, if any, was Mary Shelley aware of the Golem-tales of Prague, and the Wandering Jew tales of wider Europe, and did she consciously, or even unconsciously, deploy them in her creation of both Doctor Victor and the poor, sad creature whom we have mis-named ever since as "the monster"?

It seems to me likely, and yet there is nothing of any merit or significance among the academic critics that even touches on the subject. Type in "Mary Shelley + Golem" to an Internet search engine and you will find some cranky pages of Frankenstein idolatry, which raise the same question that I have here, but likewise fail to answer it (click here, and here, for two examples), simply re-telling the Jewish legends without investigating the Shelley. One day, perhaps, I shall undertake that task, but not today. Enough to have written this - and then the decision where to post this essay on the blog: which day, which date. I have gone for September 17th, the date in 1609 on which the Maharal, as he is known in the Jewish world, Rabbi Judah ben Bezalel Loew, returned like his Golem to the dust and clay; but also, because I love these arbitrary coincidences, because this was the closing date, in this year 2017 in which I am writing, of the film festival in another of my old home towns, Toronto; the film on gala night this year, the world premiere of a new movie about Mary Shelley and the writing of "Frankenstein".

Much of Banville's text is in fact out-sourced from Angelo Maria Ripellino's "Magic Prague", using the David Newton Marinelli translation published by Macmillan in 1994; his extensive usage, with an acknowledgement, is my justification for doing the same with his own text here, though I have not sought permission either from him or from his publisher. Banville also notes (page 241) that Ripellino's text, "I am glad to note, relies heavily on the writings of others." So we too are a kind of Cabal.

Amber pages

                          born today

I believe this is the appropriate way to present that piece of information

Chaim Herzog, President of Israel, born today in 

Hank Williams Sr (Hiram King Williams), country music pioneer, born today in 1923

Ken Kesey, taker of the Electric Kool-Aid AcidTest and author of the cuckoo's nest, born today in 1935

The first 33-1/3 rpm recording was released, today in 1934 - and I am going to invite you to guess what was on that recording. Was it a) Beethoven's Fifth Symphony; b) Bing Crosby singing "June in  January"; c) a black gospel choir performing "Amazing Grace"; d) the recording engineer at the RCA Victor studio saying "testing, testing, 1, 2, 3"? You are free to phone a friend, or take a lifeline.

Anatasio Somoza, deposed Nicaraguan President, assassinated, today in 1980. Enrique Gorriaran Merlo, alias "Ricardo", was the man who carried out the "execution", not terribly subtly either, firing a rocket which tore off the roof of Sonoza's Mercedes limo, taking both the President's and his chauffeur's head with it. GER!

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