A Note on Jake Marmer’s Poem “Bathhouse of Dreams”

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Jake Marmer’s poem, “Bathhouse of Dreams,” is an improvised poem which is based – in part – on a Mishnah from the tractate Avoda Zarah 3:4:

Proklos, son of Plosphos asked Rabban Gamliel a question in Akko, where he was washing in Aphrodite’s bathhouse. He said to [Rabban Gamliel], “Isn’t it written in your Torah (Deut. 13:18), ‘do not allow any banned items [from idol worshippers] to stick to your hand’? How then do you bathe in Aphrodite’s bathhouse?” He replied, “One does not respond [to religious questions] in the bath.” Once he exited, [Rabban Gamliel] said to him, “I did not enter her domain, but she entered mine. [Further], people don’t say, ‘let’s make a bath as a decoration for Aphrodite.’ Rather, they say, ‘let’s make a statue of Aphrodite as a decoration for our bath.’” Another reason: Even if someone paid you lots of money, you wouldn’t commence your idol worship if you were naked or sticky*, nor would you urinate before [your sacred object]. But this [statue of Aphrodite] stands over the sewer and everyone urinates before it. The verse “these are your gods” (Exod. 32:4) is not said about this case. If a [statue] is treated as a god, then it is forbidden, but if it is not treated as a god, then it is permitted [to be in its presence].

How does this Mishnah relate to the title of Marmer’s poem and the poem itself which addresses a dream-like revision of the Mishnah?   Before we address Marmer’s poem, I’d like to preface my reading with a brief summary of the “Rabbinical” approach to dreams and follow it up with a sketch of Freud’s reading of the dream.  This will help us to understand what is at stake in Marmer’s re-imagining of this Mishnaic scene.

Poets have, for centuries, been interested in dreams.  And dreams, to be sure, have their root in prophesy and religion.  “Pagan” religion and monotheism pay much heed to dreams. As far as Judaism goes, there is an ambivalent attitude toward dreams.  Many of the first prophets in the Jewish tradition communicated with God by way of the dream.  But, according to Moses Maimonides, these prophets are lesser than Moses who communicated with God (so to speak) “face to face.”  Maimonides, in the vein of Ancient Greek and rationalist Islamic philosophy, makes it quite clear in his Guide to the Perplexed that imagination is a deficient mode vis-à-vis the intellect.  And in his view, Moses is the “greatest of all prophets” because, unlike the other prophets who communicated with God via the imagination, his intellect was perfected and his imagination was purified.  And, as Leo Strauss points out in his reading of Maimonides, the imagination, for Moses, had only one purpose at that point and that purpose is political; namely, to communicate to the masses.  Since the majority of people relate better to the imagination than to the intellect, it is the best medium to use for political purposes; however, it is not the highest man can achieve.  Although Baruch Spinoza disagreed with Maimonides on many different points, he agreed with him on the clear distinction between intellect and the imagination.  And Spinoza even found Moses at fault for, in his view, a minimal appeal to the imagination.

Nonetheless, as Sarah Stroumsa points out in her book on Maimonides, Maimoindes didn’t always have a rationalist position on the imagination and dreams.  As she argues, when he was younger he wanted to write a book interpreting images and the imagination which had more resonances with Kabbalah than with the Rationalists.  However, his position changed over time.  Maimonides understood the importance of imagery, the imagination, and dreams in Judaism.  But, as we can see from The Guide to the Perplexed, he ultimately settled with the rationalist reading of dreams and imagery.

On the other hand, poets and Kabbalists give greater weight to dreams. To be sure, exile itself is likened to a dream.  We see this in Psalm 126:

A Song of Ascents. When God brings about the return to Zion, we were like dreamers. Then our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues with joyous song. (126:1-2)

This psalm gives weight to the dreams of exile.  And no amount of rationalism can (or even should) be appealed to so as to eliminate these dreams.  To be sure, the poet understands that dreams are or can be related to perception and desire.  The question, for the Jewish poet and the Rabbi who are concerned with dreams, is how do we interpret the dreams of exile.

Rav Kook reads this Psalm in terms of the “dreams of redemption” which, one day, will disappear.   In his view, this did happen in some way with the founding of the State of Israel.  However, the exile lives on since the “full redemption” has not arrived.   For an American Jew who lives after the founding of the Jewish State, however, the dream seems to live on.

And, as Jake Marmer’s poem on the Mishnah implies, imagining Rabbi Gamliel’s “Bathhouse Dreams” is of great interest to the poet.  The imagination, for the Jewish poet, must be active; it doesn’t simply foster desire for redemption; it also sharpens our vision of the present and relation to the past.  And, in Marmer’s poem, it does so in a comic manner.   This makes it even more appealing to us, today, since one of the most important ways American-Jews have to relate to their Jewishness is by way of humor (as a recent Pew Poll shows).

I’d like to briefly turn to Freud’s theory of the dream to show how this appeal to the dream works on many levels.

If anyone takes the time to understand Freud’s theory of dreams, one will notice that something happens between The Interpretation of Dreams and Beyond the Pleasure Principle.   In the Interpretation of Dreams, Freud looks at dreams through the lens of the “pleasure principle.”  According to this theory, the psyche will go to great lengths to discharge all energy by any means necessary because the buildup of energy within the psyche is “painful.”  And the pleasure principle is, more or less, the principle to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.  For this reason, Freud, working on his system of the id, ego, and superego, argues that consciousness censors things that are, according to the superego, detrimental to the health of consciousness.  One such thing would be sexual taboos.  These, Freud argued, must be discharged. And since the conscious mind won’t let it come to the surface, taboos are buried in the unconscious only to be resurrected and discharged in dreams.

But since there is also a “censor” in dreams, these feelings must be hidden in some way. For instance, instead of seeing your sister in your dream (who you may have an incestual desire for) you see a “substitute” who doesn’t look like your sister but feels like her.

This theory of dreams is based on an economy of discharging energy so as to maintain the pleasure principle: in the most Greek sense, happiness/pleasure is the goal.   This theory of dreams changes later on in Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle.  Before he wrote this book, he witnessed the dreams of men who were terrorized by experiences they had on the battlefield during WWI.  Their traumatic dreams would repeat over and over again (he calls this a “repetition compulsion”).  And the unconscious seemed to be deriving pleasure from this pain.  And this, for Freud, was troubling; it violated the “pleasure principle.”   His theory didn’t make room for trauma and, as he understood, it had to now; in the wake of his discoveries on the battle field medical tent.

I’d like to posit that Freud’s theory of the pleasure principle has Greek resonances while his later approach to dreams has more of a Jewish resonance.  In the latter theory, the pain of history, the trauma of history, is incorporated into the dream.  It is noted and happiness is not the goal so much as memory.

What I love about Jake Marmer’s poem “Bathhouse of Dreams” is the fact that it draws on Freud’s latter theory, reread the above mentioned Mishnah from Avodah Zarah, and adds a comic dimension to memory that Freud didn’t bring out in his post-pleasure principle theory.

In Marmer’s poem (and its performance), there is an angry (yet comic) tone that the poet takes on as he identifies with Rabbi Gamliel when he responds to the Hellenists’ query as to why he is in the Bathhouse of Aprhodite.     (The “Bathhouse of Dreams” poem starts at 3:55 in the video below.)

The poem starts off with a slightly modified citation from the Mishnah.  But it goes on to put in what is not there; namely, a retort which brings out the insider/outsider status of the Jew in Hellenistic culture: his double consciousness.  And this status is communicated by way of the dream/beard. The music in the piece brings out a dragnet style of sound to the presentation of the Rabbi’s words interspersed by a sequence that seems to be fighting with itself for speech. (Here’s the soundcloud link: https://soundcloud.com/lawrencebush):

Rabbi, why are you here to wash?

The Beard of my double consciousness answered Rabbi Gamliel….Yeah, my beard of double consciousness answered Galmliel…Every morning I wake up to find another split in my beard, and find another hole in my beard, and find another nest in my beard…

After this interlude, the music becomes more erratic to match the dream/ravings of Gamliel.  The increase in speed has the effect of becoming more and more comic as the jazz piece moves on.  At the end, Galmliel makes a pledge to remain a “perpetual dreamboy.” But this is punctuated by the music dropping out.  In this gap, Marmer inserts the words: “in a locked suitcase.”

The music then returns to the dragnet style melody .

I find this modulation and the last words to be telling.  What we find in these movements and words is an awareness of the “double consciousness” of the Jew which is communicated by way of the imaginary personification of the words Gamliel never said.  These words end with a pledge to become a “perpetual dreamboy” (in other words, a poet-schleimel; a “lord of dreams”) in response to the question (read as an insult) made by the Hellenist.  The response punctuates a series of angry retorts that struggle to the poets mouth (this is conveyed by the music).  But in the end, the position is one of withdrawal, a pledge that is, ultimately, to be found in a “locked suitcase.”  This sounds like a pandora box of sorts. But if it were opened up, what we would have is not war or violence so much as rage, comedy, and dreams.

This closing irony, which is the end of a build up of rage, is Jake Marmer’s way of relating to the past vis-à-vis the Mishnah and the present vis-à-vis his retelling and revising it.

The accent on the present brings out the power of the dream to mark the traumatic affect of double consciousness while, at the same time, showing how humor can be used to modulate this consciousness and rage.   Marmer is teaching us how, for American-Jews today, comedy and rage can go hand in hand with memory and poetic speech(that is, if one is willing to own up to one’s past struggles with society rather than forget about it). Indeed, comedy and rage can be employed in our relating to the Jewish past and the Jewish present (that is, if the relation of Jewish to non-Jewish identity is to remain an issue; if “double consciousness” is to remain an issue as it is for this poet who personifies Rabbi Gamliel).

At the end of the poem, I can feel the power of the dream is not to affect a kind of happiness, as Freud would say in his early work: that the day-dream or dream accomplish happiness in spite of things that cause the psyche pain.  Rather, the power of the dream-poem is to effect a sense of how something has not been worked through; comedy doesn’t eliminate rage or double consciousness.  Rather, comedy shows our weakness and our strength.

This is not a dream realized, as Kook would call for.  And this dream is not something that can be rationalized away. Rather, this poet’s dream imaginatively taps into the past from the angle of the present so as to disclose the difficult place of “double consciousness” that Jews speak from in our post-modern age.

Like Marmer, I understand his position very well.  It is the position of the schlemiel. And, for the poet and audience, it is double.  It is the angle of the Jewish Sancho Panza (the poet and audience) who pays close attention to the dreaming Don Quixote (Rabbi Gamliel and the poet), but with a twist: namely, the twist of historical fate which has and continues to make the Jew aware of his/her double consciousness.

The schlemiel, after all, is the lord of dreams.  And we, the readers of the schlemiel, are not.  Yet, when we see or hear the schlemiel, we can’t help but realize that his consciousness is ours.  We are in and out of reality and history.  We are double.  This is a bitter-sweet comedy of Jewishness. But it remains and will remain as long as the dream of exile remains a reality.

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