NABOKV-L post 0010858, Tue, 21 Dec 2004 09:56:41 -0800

Subject
Fwd: Re: Mrs. Sol Dr. Solov Soloveichik "Signs & Symbols"
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----- Forwarded message from STADLEN@aol.com -----
Date: Tue, 21 Dec 2004 00:42:16 EST
From: STADLEN@aol.com

In a message dated 20/12/2004 21:41:40 GMT Standard Time,
chtodel@gss.ucsb.edu writes:

> Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik is the one who
> probably embodies Nabokov?s net of references most
> perfectly. He was one of the 20th century?s most
> preeminent and influential Jewish scholars. Born in
> 1903 in Belarus, to a family renowned for its Talmudic
> genius, and a graduate of the University of Berlin
> with a doctorate in philosophy, in the early 1930s,
> Soloveitchik accepted the position of Chief Rabbi of
> Boston ? the same city where Nabokov?s ?Signs and
> Symbols? was written. Soloveitchik wrote numerous
> highly influential essays and Torah discourses. His
> essay, ?American Jewish Experience,? describes the
> kind of choices Nabokov?s elderly parents of ?Signs
> and Symbols? dealt with: the great traumatic
> experience of the European Holocaust and its impact on
> American Jews (Rabbi Soloveitchik: ?Man becomes aware
> of the Finite only when he is confronted with death?).
>

I had been wondering whether it would be a diversion, just a personal
association, to mention Rabbi Soloveitchik ("the Rav") in connection with "Signs
and
Symbols". I am indebted to Yuri Leving for pointing out, what I stupidly
hadn't realised, that Boston was a link between them. (Could Boston be the
setting
of the story?)

The Rav does, in remarkable ways, remind me of VN. Both combined what Snow
crudely called "the two cultures" at a profound level. (See VN's ridicule of the
Snow-Leavis "debate" in "Strong Opinions".) Soloveitchik was one of the great
existential thinkers of the twentieth century (see his book "The Lonely Man
of Faith"). At the same time, his university training was not just in
philosophy but in mathematics, and his marvellous book "Halakhic Man" relates
the moral
law to the crystalline objectivity of mathematics and physics (1983: p. 83):

"To what may the matter be compared? To the physicist who concerns himself
with mathematical formulae, the laws of mechanics, the laws of electromagnetic
phenomena, optics, etc., etc. He joins together 'precept to precept ... line to
line' (Isaiah 28: 10, 13), number to number .... these numbers that only are
meaningful within the system itself, only meaningful as part of abstract
mathematical functions, symbolize the image of existence."

A striking passage of his is this from the same book (1983: note 4, p. 142):
"Yes, it is true that during the third Sabbath meal at dusk, as the day of
rest declines and man's soul yearns for its Creator and is afraid to depart from
that realm of holiness whose name is Sabbath, into the dark and frightening,
secular workaday week, we sing the psalm 'The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not
want; he leadeth me beside the still waters' (Ps. 23), etc., etc., and we
believe with our entire hearts in the words of the psalmist. However, this psalm
only describes the ultimate destination of homo religiosus, not the path
leading to that destination. For the path that eventually will lead to the
'green
pastures' and the 'still waters' is not the royal road, but a narrow twisting
footway that threads its course along the steep mountain slope, as the terrible
abyss yawns at the traveler's feet."

This contrasts with Freud's arrogant assertion at the climax of his dream
book when he makes the book say of itself: "Die Traumdeutung [The interpretation
of dreams (the book's own title)] is the via regia [royal road] to the
knowledge of the unconscious in the life of the soul."

Freud wrote this in full knowledge of the tradition that there was no "royal
road": whether it was Euclid explaining to Ptolemy Soter that there was no
royal road to geometry, or Hegel ridiculing those who wanted a royal road to
"science", or Gerard Manley Hopkins writing that it is fortunate that there is
no
royal road to poetry.

VN's criticism of Freud and of crude symbolism (see "Rowe's Symbols") is
similar to Soloveitchik's criticism of "homo religiosus".

PS. Why, in "Signs and Symbols", does the underground train stop
tautologically "between two stations"? It could hardly have stopped between one
or three.
In VN's writing, as in the Torah, it is safe to assume that no word is
superfluous. In "East Coker", in a passage of which this part of "Signs and
Symbols"
is (deliberately?) reminiscent, Eliot has the underground train stop too long
"between stations":

"Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between
stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about"

Is the "superfluous" "two" in "Signs and Symbols" a hint that, just as the
wife's telling the girl she is reading a letter rather than a number alerts us
to the extraordinary number of numbers in the text, these numbers, in turn, are
only one stage towards our understanding of the "second" story that VN said
was there to be found, and are ultimately superfluous?

Anthony Stadlen

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