The Dialogues of Time and Entropy

by Aryeh Lev Stollman
ISBN: 1573222356

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The Mystical Ecosystem of A.L. Stollman
by Michael Greenstein

Aryeh Lev Stollman is one of those rare creatures who straddles C.P. Snow's "two cultures" of science and art. A neuroradiologist by day, Stollman has published two novels and a short story collection, whose title hints at the two cultures-the dialogue between artistic time and scientific entropy. As one of the characters exclaims: "Science and the humanities are one! The verbal divisions are artificial!" At times these dialogues become clashes between tradition and modernity, science and the humanities, realism and fantasy, regionalism and universalism, Zion and Diaspora. Entropy implies a loss of energy, and each of these short stories ends with a sense of loss after narrative progression and gains leading to climax and anti-climax. In kabbalistic terms, Stollman's stories exhibit a dialogue between entropy and tikkun, the repair of redemption that on a spiritual level accompanies entropy in the physical world.
Instead of a looking-glass, the reader goes through x-rays to flesh out a coloured wonderland from skeletal features. The opening story, "Mr. Mitochondria", draws on Stollman's neurological background: mitochondria are microscopic particles within each living cell. But Stollman's gaze is telescopic as well as microscopic; accordingly, his dialogues have much in common with Cynthia Ozick's vision in The Cannibal Galaxy. Most of the stories focus on family situations where the parents are accomplished, and their offspring equally talented and precocious in the sciences, the arts, or both. "Mr. Mitochondria" unfolds gradually with a transplanted Canadian family in Israel. "We were having breakfast on the spring day before the locusts arrived." Historically we are reminded of the Ten Plagues in "Exodus", but the locusts acquire other meanings by the end of the story.
On the outskirts of Beersheba in the Negev desert, the parents have filled their garden with flowers whose names are allegorical: Sarah's Handmaiden, Job's Wife, Elisha's Cure. The children's lunar names are also allegorical: Adar, the protagonist, is named after the last month of the rainy season before spring, while the narrator Tishrei is named for the autumn month when the world is judged. Their father is a nuclear scientist, their mother a science fiction writer working on an epic trilogy, The Ichalob Chronicles. She also tells stories about the family's "great migration" from Canada to Israel, and migrations of different sorts fill "Mr. Mitochondria", from the spread of locusts, to the imaginative flight to Ichalob and Galaxy Five. Stollman offers clues to the mysteries in his stories. Early on, the mother describes her flowers in terms that spill over to the human domain: "They're my special babies! I couldn't bear to lose a single one." In the cross-fertilization of themes and subjects, she loses and mourns both flower and child in the surprise ending. In Stollman's ecosystem everything is connected and separated.
To celebrate Adar's award from the National Science Institute, his mother bakes a cake with the inscription, "Congratulations, Mr. Mitochondria!" When the children ask who Mr. Mitochondria is, "a new uncertainty" overtakes them. That same uncertainty overtakes the reader, as brothers and parents dissolve in some "strange healing grace": "I no longer needed to keep imagining my lost brother," and "My mother and father had suddenly become indistinguishable to me." The illusory and allegorical dialogue between brothers underscores the magnetic field of tikkun or healing grace and entropic loss. Stollman's exclamation marks act as probes for irony and meaning in the therapeutic surgery of his fiction.
When Adar draws pictures of the plants in his sketchbooks, he writes their Latin names underneath, and beside their names he sketches their guardian angels. Angels are recurrent figures in these stories. In the second story, "Enfleurage", the Cantor's wife Berenice has a miscarriage during which she sees "angels fluttering their wings." When the twelve-year-old narrator, Alex, befriends Berenice in Windsor, something goes wrong with his nervous system and he begins to imagine angels. When they go for an excursion on the Detroit River and see patches of fog hovering on the surface, Alex regards them as angels, Berenice as angels being born. And when the Cantor sings, Alex's rabbinic father exclaims that it's as if the Seraphim are singing. Some of the material in this story appears in Stollman's first novel, The Far Euphrates; angels lend a supernatural and surreal dimension to his fiction.
A survivor of the Holocaust who lost his first wife and baby in Europe, the Cantor conducts a mysterious perfume business in his basement. When Berenice takes Alex to see this perfumery, he accidentally knocks over a bottle of enfleurage, the oil that absorbs fragrances. The story concludes with a synaesthetic blend of music, light, and smells on a Holy Day in the synagogue. Alex imagines "all the people as supernatural beings, souls, phantoms, essences, each distilled like fragrance from a flower." This mystical enfleurage affects the Cantor's special melody, for instead of cantorial music he sings opera to the congregation. After this lapse the Cantor and Berenice leave Windsor, and Alex dreams of their son, "who rose like a mist from the river and was the friend I had always needed." As characters converge and diverge, multiple losses take place in the entropy of enfleurage. Stollman distills essences from their insular lives and the synapses of their neurological networks.
Alex and angels resurface in "The Adornment of Days", as Alexander Sahne "rises from his desk, slowly, majestically, as the Divine Shekhinah shall surely rise, on the day of Her choosing, from the dust of an earthly Exile, raising the sparks of fallen souls with Her." Having left New York for Jerusalem, Alexander is at work on a Kabbalistic opera in the apartment of his grandfather, a kabbalistic scholar who resembles Gershom Scholem. This opera is a Jewish version of Salome in which the false messiah, Shabbatai Sevi, calls upon the female Godhead, the Shekhinah, to appear. This mysterious story ends with Alexander's vision of the Shekhinah in his grandfather's apartment, suggesting creative tikkun or repair as well as the destructive loss of exile. Just as some of the stories relate to Stollman's first novel, so this one relates to his second, The Illuminated Soul.
Through all of his mystical and scientific codes, Stollman is also capable of subtle irony, as in "The Little Poet", which refers not simply to the youthful enthusiasms of its protagonist Toby Sahl, but also to his diminished stature in reality in contrast to his inflated vision of himself. Visiting Jerusalem, he feels inspired to compose poems for the Young Ontario Poets' Competition: "One day he would write an epic poem in French and be made Chevalier de France." In the meantime, his jejune verses, egregious French exclamations ("Oh, mon parents!"), and opening "Le soleil, Le soleil" (which focuses on his surname Sahl) underscore his egocentric romanticism. After a car accident in Israel, Toby suffers from a passing neurological disorder, and he imagines winning the poetry competition for his submission, "La Mer Morte", based upon his trip to the Dead Sea. The award letter cites the "otherworldly" quality of his poetry, and as he loses sight of reality he sees crowds applauding him for his poems that get translated into every language on earth.
Parables, allegories, fables, and fantasies, Stollman's stories explore the boundaries between science and mysticism, using techniques of disjunction between past and present, old world and new. In the final dialogue between "Entropy" and "Time", the former fades and vanishes within the larger story about the destruction of an Israeli settlement. The narrator's mirage-like wife repeats: "The kabbalists knew . . . that we are all interchangeable with energy." Stollman's universe is divided between therapeutic tikkun and the increased disorder of entropy.

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