Wednesday, May 18, 2011


I'm a little ahead on part of my reading schedule, so I'm taking the opportunity to go off the list for a few days with Chaim Potok's The Book of Lights. A friend saw me reading this book at the food court today, and when he asked me what it was about, I didn't know just what to say at first. After a few moments of hesitation, I said, "It's about a Jewish man who gets ordained as a Rabbi in the 1950s and then goes to Korea as an army chaplain." But that's just a plot.

If I had decided to give a longer and different answer, I could have said the book was about life, death, light, darkness, mysticism, physics, regrets, visions, time, fire, language, sex, sight, vehicles, food, scholarship, disease, travel, and religion -- in short, pretty near everything. Most of these topics take on symbolic meaning early on, a meaning that resonates each time the subject arises later, even in mundane situations. In the first few pages we learn that young Gershon's uncle stokes the furnace in their Brooklyn apartment building, feeding the fire intended to keep the residents warm. The uncle becomes ill, though, from breathing the coal dust, so fire in this book quickly becomes a two-edged flaming sword, bringing both warmth and destruction. Gershon often hears fire engines and knows that people are losing their homes. The army provides fire to Gershon in his Quonset hut in Korea, bringing warmth against the winter cold and light for reading; but it has also used fire, as Potok reminds us, to destroy buildings and human lives in Tokyo.

Elevators provide another example. The reader first encounters an elevator in the seminary. It moves slowly and unpredictably at first and eventually breaks down, but these malfunctions don't disrupt the discussions of mysterious Kaballah passages. The broken elevator, in fact, seems entirely appropriate for a school more interested in mysticism than in modern technology. Potok tells us, though, that the elevators run perfectly smoothly in the all-too-worldly luxury hotel that appears later in the novel. The associations clearly established, every ostensibly casual mention of an elevator's functionality from then on (far too frequent not to be intentional) tells us something important about the worldview of the institution it serves.

All the topics weave in and out of the story continually like colored threads in a tapestry, meeting up and crossing each other seemingly in every possible combination. Scholarship-mysticism: Gershon studies books of Kaballah. Language-regrets: Gershon's uncle, bitter about the disappearance of his son in World War II, can no longer muster full sentences and speaks only in disconnected two-word phrases. Physics-scholarship: Einstein plays a part in the story. The atomic bomb his theories make possible adds another combination, explicitly called once the "death-light." Light-time-travel: the Americans experiencing jet lag from their flights to Korea get days and nights confused. Death-vehicles: Gershon sees a fatal accident caused by a runaway horse. Food-religion-disease: Gershon, attempting to stay Kosher in Korea, loses weight dangerously for lack of nutrition. Darkness-visions-travel-regrets: among the many voices Gershon hears is the voice of chaos challenging him to quit running from questions that can't be answered. Light-scholarship-sight-fire-travel: this voice tells Gershon that the brilliance of the great Jewish scholars of the twentieth century has blinded their successors, made ashes of all the great ideas, and sent the bereaved scholars running around the world seeking truth.

With all the combinations and slow accretions of connotation, the texture of the book eventually suggests that everything points to everything else, that all is connected. Which of course it is. At one point, Gershon's friend Arthur says, "God, he put together everything--matter, energy, space, time." Since Arthur believes he is talking about Einstein, he uses that first word as an interjection. But if we take the word as an appositive identifier of the pronoun "he"--reading the line with a kind of irony found often in C. S. Lewis and Flannery O'Connor, an irony probably partly inspired by John 11:49-52--we find Arthur unwittingly praising the Creator.

Potok, made in that Creator's image, puts everything together in his own artistic fashion. The themes run together like melodic lines in a fugue, always in motion yet always coordinated. Surely it's no accident that Gershon's favorite composer is the master of complex counterpoint, the very Christian J. S. Bach.

1 comment:

  1. I have another Potok novel, "The Chosen" waiting unopened on my shelf right now. If it is anything like The Book of Lights it looks like I am in for a treat.