||Sackcloth And Gladness
by Medrie Purdham
Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing: thou hast put off my sackcloth and
girded me with gladness.
(Thirtieth Psalm, quoted in A.M. Klein’s
The Second Scroll)
First published in 1951, A.M. Klein’s The Second Scroll is a slim novel with a wide compass: it is a study of how to make metaphysical sense of history in the aftermath of the Holocaust. With Zionist hopes fastened upon the newly founded State of Israel, Klein writes his contemporary history to conform to the typology of the Torah, with its pattern of exile and restoration, suffering and deliverance. Klein’s narrator is, in the tradition of the Biblical “remnant” generation, charged with assuring the continuity of Jewish culture. It is from the difficult standpoint of the Canadian Jew, isolated both from the core of suffering and from the site of cultural rebirth, that the narrator must connect with the “map’s bleeding stigmata”, Palestine.
The narrator of the Second Scroll has been sent to Israel to find and translate the best of the new Israeli poetry, a search which is subsumed into a quest for a lost uncle. Both the poet, with his “underivative” voice, and his uncle, Melech Davidson, with his experiential wisdom, reflect the narrator’s thirst for purity of meaning. Through webs of Casablancan alleys and across continents, the narrator searches for Davidson, with a “where shall I seek you?” idiom that mirrors Davidson’s own search for God. Melech Davidson, a survivor of the Holocaust, has pulled through a crisis of faith to champion the cause of oppressed Jews living in the Diaspora. He is, by sign and symbol, a Messianic figure, and his unique gift is to distill the essence from conflicting philosophies, to discover the humanity in God and the divinity in man.
Although the narrator of The Second Scroll physically makes the trip across Europe and North Africa to Safed, the seat of political Zionism, the journey is, above all, a journey of interpretation. Like many homecoming narratives, “coming home” is a process of “making sense” driven by a desire to discover the emotional and cognitive crux of contemporary experience. It is a quest which taps into religious and secular traditions alike. Klein evokes the Torah alongside the “sacred texts” of the Western literary canon: Homer, Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Joyce. The rare accomplishment of this book is its wide allusiveness, its intricate and beautiful form. The structure of The Second Scroll mirrors the narrative structure of the Pentateuch, while Klein’s own glosses on the text—poetic, dramatic, liturgical, epistolary—involve the reader in the Talmudic interface of text and commentary.
From Genesis to Joyce, there can be no overestimating the editorial richness of the new, annotated, scholarly edition of The Second Scroll. The scrupulous scholarship behind this edition makes the esoteric text that The Second Scroll threatens to be, into the multifoliate text that it really is.
Klein’s eagerness to situate the crises of the contemporary world in a larger tradition is sure to arouse scepticism and discomfort in some readers. An insistence on tradition and pattern risks rationalizing, to some degree, the moral chaos of large-scale anti-Semitism. The practice of analogy can also dim the reality of the palpable pain that Klein actually witnessed—the submedieval living conditions of Jews in North Africa; the despair of refugees in the “displaced person” camps—and, beyond that scope, the Holocaust. Klein can seem, on the surface, prohibitively literary, intellectual, idealist, and, if possible, too articulate.
Past criticism of The Second Scroll has, at times, focused on the novel’s profuse eloquence, the visible gifts of one of Canada’s best and most prolific poets. Klein’s prose in some passages is elevated almost to the point of psalmody. But it is important to keep an eye on beauty, because in beauty we aspire to the divine. Melech Davidson reads the history of contemporary Jewry in the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In the first famous finger-touch between God and Man, he reads universality under creation and the immanence of the Deity. He sees the wonder of the “weighted animate corpus of humanity” and praises it in lavish terms: “Brooding nudities they are themselves like gods. Long-limbed, Atlas-shouldered, lyre-chested, each body is a song echoing the Creator’s voice.” This unabashed idealism is what makes the mirror-image of the broken entanglement of flesh in the bitterly catalogued “sistine limepit” (“femur and tibia and clavicle and ulna and thorax...”) all the more potent—the huge shortfall between the “efflorescence” of the ideal and the horror of the real reflected in the breakdown of poetry.
The charge of linguistic overindulgence is, at its root, a challenge to the “authenticity” of the voices, an issue very close to the novel’s heart. But since the first scroll—the Torah—is the codification of faith in Mosaic law, and therefore celebrates the very explicitness of the covenant between God and man, then likewise the second scroll—Klein’s—must shy away from the rhetoric of inexpressibility, indeed of unfathomability, that naturally lends itself to the subject of the Holocaust, in order to affirm its Zionist hopes.
Elizabeth Popham, in her introduction to this edition, valuably points the reader towards the ambivalence underlying Klein’s writing despite its eloquence and intensity. This ambivalence, she suggests, comes from having to choose between a view of contemporary history that suggests that present suffering is part of a timeless, cyclical design assuring the continuation of the “fruitful tradition” of Judaism, and a view of history in which Jewish culture is discontinuous, if not destroyed.
Further, the notion of “excess” of language stems from the idea that language must be used transparently to allow the reader access to the emotional core and social commentary of the work. In reading The Second Scroll, however, one wouldn’t want to look through the language, through the apparatus of the artwork, to be moved by pure social fact. Klein is eager to show the redemptive qualities of art itself; therefore, his language is conspicuously punning, multilayered, multitraditional, innovative, and poetic, and the form he adopts is challenging.
In The Second Scroll, the pivotal moment of the narrator’s childhood, marking both loss of innocence and gain of individual resolve, is the arrival of strangers from Volhynia bearing news of pogroms sweeping the Ukraine, an event coincident with the narrator’s first exploration of the Hebrew alphabet. This is a sudden and a double education. On the one hand is the absolute devastation of meaning posed by a child’s first sudden awareness of abject brutality; on the other is the narrator’s ability to constitute meaning through written language and symbolic thought. Klein treats art as its own particular form of grace (the creation of “aught from naught” is key in the mystical tradition). But as always, ambivalence prevails.
The knowledge that Klein endured intense psychological trauma and withdrew from society shortly after the first publication of The Second Scroll is its own distressing comment on how far art truly reaches in the realm of consolation. The inclusion of Klein’s own travel and lecture notes in this edition invites such an autobiographical overlay. There can be no doubt that this is a troubling novel, and not easily grappled with. Its enduring appeal is that it is a work so full of aspiration, envisioning so many kinds of reunion: reunion, literally, of kith and kin; Zionist reunion of Jews living in the Diaspora; reunion of man and God under a renewed faith; reunion of sign and signified, text and commentary. In an existential formulation, Klein begs for the reunion of essence with existence, as the devastation of Jewry’s physical existence is intensified by the challenge to collective identity posed by the Diaspora. The final “gathering of fragments” causes anagnorisis in the reader—a process not of cognition, explains this edition, but of recognition—a synthesis of multiple traditions, a cohesive reading of stories we already know.
The Second Scroll is both a disturbing and a rewarding reading experience, evoking the strange and uncountenanceable through the intimately familiar.
Medrie Purdham lives in Montreal and studies Canadian literature at McGill University.