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Yeats wrote “Only an aching heart / Conceives a changeless work of art,” and I had plenty of heartache at the time I wrote “Words for Elephant Man.” Several things happened within the space of a few weeks: I was going through a personal crisis over a troubled relationship. My sister gave birth to a baby that was severely disabled. Then I saw David Lynch’s film “The Elephant Man” and identified with Joseph Merrick’s suffering. In addition, I was reading about Yeats’s concept of “the mask”: The poet takes on a character’s identity and employs it as a vehicle to convey emotions. Without the constellation of these various elements I doubt whether I would have written the book. It was an artist’s perfect storm.
We tend to associate alienation with modernity, but in fact it is an ancient motif. It is the theme of the very first story in Genesis. Adam and Eve are exiled and alienated from their original home and we, their descendants, are fated to gaze forever backward to Eden. Historical circumstance has rendered the Jews experts on the theme of alienation. We are a people who lived without a homeland for two millennia. When the state of Israel was formed, some worried that Jews would become too comfortable in their homeland and that their edgy, diasporic nature would evaporate. But Israel will always feel threatened and Jews — even Israeli Jews — will preserve their trademark alienation.
Of course, Jewish alienation has been double-edged. While it is painful, it is also a powerful source of creativity. Whoever stands on the margins has a keen, almost hyper-sensitive view of society and its culture. Without our alienation there would be no Spinoza, Freud or Claude-Levi Strauss; no Bellow, Sontag or Ozick; no Woody Allen or Larry David. I seem to be attracted to writers who are under duress.
In my essay collection “What the Furies Bring,” I examine the works of Jewish writers who suffered much more than cultural alienation; some are well known (Primo Levi and Anne Frank), and some deserve to be better known (Chaim Kaplan and Vasily Grossman). There is darkness to their writing, but affirmation as well. Kaplan, for example, survived the most punishing circumstances in the Warsaw Ghetto by keeping a diary. Titled “Scroll of Agony,” his book provides a vivid historical record of daily life in the ghetto; it also gives us a sense of how an intelligent humanist can endure such an excruciating experience. Kaplan’s equanimity, his adamant resolve to leave behind an accurate record of the appalling events, is, to my mind, heroic.