There’s a Golem in My Garden // Cynthia Ozick

On creating the heavens and the earth.

Golem-making is dangerous; like all major creation it endangers the life of the creator… The danger is not that the golem, become autonomous, will develop overwhelming powers; it lies in the tension which the creative process arouses in the creator himself.

             Gershom Scholem, “The Idea of the Golem” (1960)

 Puttermesser sees that she is the golem’s golem.

             Cynthia Ozick, The Puttermesser Papers (1997)

 Allow me to begin by stating a few obvious things:

Making a golem is a little like playing God.
Making a golem is like writing.
Writing is an act of creation and therefore, also, a bit like playing God.

I wanted to blurt my metaphors outright as a show of good faith, since no one likes an essay which turns out in the end only to have been a surprise extended allegory. That sort of essay comes a little too close to the cheap fiction devices which reveal, following any twists and turns and turmoils, that the whole experience was only a dream after all. Don’t get me wrong. What follows is a big ol’ bag of jumbled metaphors, but at least I’m admitting it from the start.

I may as well also admit the elemental sources used to cook up the alchemy of this post. For the main ingredient, we’ve got The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick. This is a novel which involves, among other things, a golem. For those of you don’t spend your free-time curiosity-tickling on subjects of medieval Jewish esotericism – and by no means do I imply any indictment for not doing so – a golem is a legendary, often humanoid, creature made out of clay and animated through some version of a mystical ritual. The golem also originates in a specifically religious tradition, that is, Jewish Kabbalism, and often gets thematized according the religious significance of creation. Gershom Scholem puts it this way in his seminal essay “The Idea of the Golem”: “For obviously a man who creates a golem is in some sense competing with God’s creation of Adam; in such an act the creative power of man enters into a relationship, whether of emulation or antagonism, with the creative power of God.” This ambivalence of emulation and antagonism in the act of creating – here is the topic I find so alluring and to which we will return.

The golem in Ozick’s novel awakens accidentally, through the down-and-out Ruth Puttermesser’s action of emptying the plant pots she hoards around her New York City apartment. Puttermesser was a lawyer and city bureaucrat until she was pushed out of her position through the nepotistic hiring practices of Mayor Malachy (“Matt”) Mavett, who then insists she help her usurper perform the professional duties for which she alone possesses the know-how. Frustrated and oppressed, wallowing in her dreary situation, desiring recognition and fulfillment and a child of her own as well, Puttermesser wakens from her reverie to find a golem in the form of a naked girl lying in her bed.

“She looked dead—she was all white, bloodless. […] Puttermesser reached out and touched the right shoulder—a reddish powder coated her fingers. The body seemed filmed with sand, or earth, or grit; some kind of clay.” This comes just after she envisions her imaginary never-born daughter memorizing Goethe’s Erlkönig poem in which a child is murdered in his father’s arms by an elf-king whom only the child can see. (Gotta love the Germans’ sense of childhood whimsy.) Such a surreal progression of events – a blurring of the imaginary, the real, and the actual – captures a constant stylistic thread throughout Ozick’s novel. For instance, she sets the book up like a biography, including the major events of Puttermesser’s life, and yet, in the introductory chapter, Ozick includes an event involving our heroine’s Uncle Zindel which she admits never actually occurred. Puttermessser never met Zindel. It could not have happened. But Ozick dodges judgments on such a fabrication in a peculiar fashion, saying, “Puttermesser is not to be examined as an artifact but as an essence. Who made her? No one cares. Puttermesser is henceforth to be presented as given.” As the introduction slides into the episode with the golem, Ozick transfers the biographer’s task – an unclear one – to the reader: “Hey! Puttermesser’s biographer! What will you do with her now?” She has tricked us all, and now we are responsible for the life which follows, whatever we may do with it.

The clay girl in Puttermesser’s bed comes to life after Puttermesser has taken license to rework bits of the girl’s form. The created life featured in the novel has multiplied to two now (not mentioning the minor roles bustling about in the periphery). She wishes to name the golem Leah, after the daughter she has imagined for herself, but the golem says she prefers the name Xanthippe. Now, we could talk for days about the general interplay of Greek and Jewish cultural reference in Ozick’s work – people certainly have – but if we isolate instead these particular references, we find a couple of women who find ways of evading control. Xanthippe, the wife of Socrates, was known to be a commanding woman who expressed her mind and would not suffer the control of any man. Leah, the first wife of Jewish patriarch Jacob, tricked Jacob into marrying her rather than her younger sister Rachel. As the story goes, while Jacob spent all of his affection on her sister Rachel, Leah used the power of God to create a progeny that far surpassed Rachel’s. (Look, I’m not saying it’s a perfect feminist myth, but the pale subtleties are there.) The golem, proceeding under both names at various points, ultimately also eludes Puttermesser’s total control as long as she is kept alive.

The golem grows continually larger and larger, stronger and stronger – as golems are wont to do. While her increasing power initially becomes beneficial in helping Puttermesser take over as mayor and reform New York City, the golem develops powerful desires of her own, sexual desires, which lead her to erratic impassioned activity. “The golem will no longer obey. She cannot be contained. ‘My blood is hot,’ Xanthippe writes; she writes for the last time.” She soils Puttermesser’s mayoral reputation, and in order to preserve what is left of the once-again decaying city, Puttermesser enacts a plot which kills the golem.

And so we come around to the dangers of creation, which would appear at first to wholesale disconfirm Scholem’s statement in the epigraph quoted above. The golem became autonomous, and that is why she was dangerous. But that’s not all that Ozick suggests. The golem herself has used her power to make Puttermesser into who she has become: the Mayor of New York, first beloved, then reviled. The golem whom she created has in turn created her, fizzling into incoherence the whole creator-creature hierarchy we might have supposed. In this novel, creators have no control over their creatures. They brought them into this world and they can, perhaps, take them out of it – but as long as their creatures continue to live within their world, all the creators can do is interact with them. The two go on making each other. The creaturely paradox here perhaps helps partly to explain the complicated nature of the biographer’s relation to the biographical subject. Once Puttermesser arrives conjured into our imaginaries, she exists as a given, as an ongoing essence staking her claim to the life of the mind and therefore the life of the immanent world. We may not consider her an artifact emerging through some contingency, though she has. We ourselves – human beings, all of us – have arrived by way of the contingent accident of birth, yet here we are. And not to sound too melodramatic about this, but you must reckon with our being.

In the end, we return to our Garden where all things began, in a manner of speaking. My pun here is overwhelmingly intentional, as I consider, along with Ozick, the role of language in all this. When we create our golems, we try to become, to ourselves, little gods competing within the game of creation. A holy text says that God spoke the world into being, and the creation story kicks off with all attention turned toward that mythic primordial garden paradise. Ozick reveals the great irony of creative beginnings by ending her novel with Puttermesser in Paradise (after suffering a horribly violent death). The specific word “paradise” is especially important here, for its etymological symmetry to the word PARDES. “PARDES is a Hebrew word, as befits so messianic a thought: it means an orchard, it means a garden, it means Paradise—derived, no doubt, in this intertwining of the vines of civilization, from the Greek PARADEISOS.” PARDES, the garden, the paradise, is also the acronym for the steps in the Jewish model of four-fold Scriptural exegesis: p’shat, remez, drosh, sod.

Perhaps I disingenuously reduce what the play of language here amounts to when I say that paradise is a manner of interpreting divine text. Clearly, the paradox in all this amounts to much more. Within the play of language, we have the ongoing game of creation in which we are all irrevocably intertwined. Derrida possibly meant such a suggestion when he said “There is no outside-the-text,” but I won’t venture to explain or understand deconstruction at this juncture. What I would like to highlight here is that we, every one of us, are gods. Too much? I don’t know, and who cares. We commit Lucifer’s sin so defiantly at every turn: constantly we are creating – through our speech, our activity, our interactions with other creaturely entities – and our constant acts of creation speak, louder than words, to the fact of our desiring to be like God. We can do nothing less.

To speak, to write books, to read – these are all-powerful gestures, made no less powerful for their restriction to the domain of language. As Ozick has her Puttermesser (Ozick’s golem for whom Ozick is also a golem) say regarding the Hebrew language, “It seemed to her not so much a language for expression as a code for the world’s design, indissoluble, predetermined, translucent.” As we interact with text, we conjure golems into this slippery world, and our golems elude our grasp. They run about, growing disproportionately quick in ways we could not have foreseen but are only ever just beginning to imagine, and all the while they turn their newfound powers upon us, the creators. The pages we write, the pages we read, make us, and every word we write recreates our universe. One hand we weave with the hand of our scriptures, and the other hand we sweep along the horizon-line, proclaiming to ourselves and each other, “Ta daaa!

Image Source: Flickr, Michael Jones (edited)

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