Let’s face it. Many of us would like to believe that potential is something one either has or doesn’t have within oneself. One is given, so to speak, the potential to use one’s capabilities to be a success or failure. One can use one’s mind, one’s experiences, one’s imagination, etc to get ahead. Although this idea is as ancient as the hills (and has a Greek source – think of Aristotle’s notion of capability), there is another idea that also deals with potentiality that has been given short shrift; namely the notion that potentiality is not something internal but something shared. And unlike the seriousness associated with potentiality, sometimes potentiality – when it is shared – has its comic aspects. Moreover, it is the fact that a meeting (an event) – since it is oftentimes a surprise or an irruption into the world of otherwise atomistic individuals – is comical that we see this potentiality released.
As I recently pointed out, the power of potentiality (as something that is based in an event or relation) is something that Levinas and Derrida suggest in their reflections on fecundity and laughter. But, as I have noted, the two reflections need to be brought together and they can be brought together by way of a reflection on Dara Horn’s first book, In the Image. Although Dara Horn paints her Jewish main characters as inheriting a tragic reality and history from their ancestors who came over from Eastern Europe, she gives them a kind of comic potentiality which is able to change this tragic reality, perhaps, for the better.
In a journalistic assignment, which is related to questions about Jewishness, God, chance, and the past of a stranger named Bill Landsman (who is older than her, an immigrant, and a survivor) who irrupted into her life, the main character, Leora, stumbles across a Spinoza scholar named Jake in Amsterdam. But this meeting is the result of many “coincidences.”
Leora was doing a perfunctory fact-check on an article at her magazine that mentioned, in an off-the-cuff kind of way, the philosopher Benedict Spinoza. He job consisted of looking up Spinoza in an online biographical encyclopedia to make sure his name was spelled correctly. (115)
In her search for information about Spinoza, she starts thinking about his understanding of God.
Spinoza believed in God, but the God he believed in resembled the God of the Hebrews only in passing. He deduced that the entire universe was formed from one type of matter, which one could call God….and that the whole world was an extension of God. This meant that God couldn’t interact with creations…since God and the world were one and the same. (116)
She finds Spinoza’s God to be a “magic potion” and wonders at the implications:
The world remained alive, inhabited, pulsing and breathing, yet there were no loose ends anymore. If people got killed crossing the street, or if they took their lives, or if cats turned into lions, you could still believe in God, but you didn’t have to blame God for anything. Everything was simply one, the hems of the world stitched complete. (116)
For Horn, Spinoza, in effect, poses a novelistic question. Do all of the happenstance events in her book – as well as the suicides, deaths, and betrayals – prove or challenge Spinoza’s claims? Is the world “stitched complete” or is the narrative weave – so to speak – torn? How do memory, history, and emotion tear the garment? Can one, quite simply, leave God out of the “picture.” Is God, as title of her book suggests, “in the image”? (It should be noted, here, that Spinoza, like Descartes, rejected the image and the imagination as befuddling the intellect. The image, for him, was an obstacle to proper reasoning and geometric logic.)
When Leora sees a poster at Columbia University about a lecture in Amsterdam, she decides that something (God, the universe, her Jewishness, etc) is telling her to go to Amsterdam:
Leora stared at the poster and found herself seized by a certain passion that she hadn’t experienced since she moved to New York. The word “Amsterdam,” italicized near the bottom of the page, seemed to waver back and forth, like a swaying finger beckoning her, asking her, If not now, when? (117)
Unlike Spinoza, Leora follows a “passion” which emerges when she is “seized” by seeing a word. The passion taps into something inside her, perhaps a question about what it means to be a Jew who emerges out of the past, perhaps a question about Bill Landsman, perhaps the fact that who she is has to do with who she is. There are many possibilities that this passion taps into and these possibilities are things that Spinoza would find misleading.
When Leora arrives in Amsterdam, she goes to the lecture and sees that Jake, a professor from Columbia University who specializes in a historical approach to Spinoza and his excommunication from the Amsterdam community, is giving the lecture. He was different from the other lecturers who had a “faith in the importance of Spinoza the way Leora’s nighttime addicts had faith in drugs”(120). They were too self-assured. He was different because he was more interested in Spinoza in a historical context. He was, in other words, more simple in his openness to possibilities while these other scholars had taken to what Spinoza would call necessity. He is more interested in history and memory which dwell in the realm of possibility.
After asking around about what to do, Leora goes to the Rijksmuseum. (This a place where – as Horn shows in a very long section – Bill (Wilhelm) Landsman went one day before the Holocaust when his father (who suffered from PTSD) hit him and sent him into flight from the home. He left without his coat with a Jewish symbol on it. “Jews and dogs” where not allowed in public places. But since Wilhelm was without this coat he wanted to see if it was possible for him to go to the museum and act “as if” he was a non-Jew. It worked and he saw works of art he had never seen before.) While there she notices that the professor from Columbia is also there. His name is “Jake.”. She approaches him and they talk. This is the beginning of a long relationship which eventually leads to a wedding engagement.
The single most important moment of their relationship is comical and leads to a kind of knowing that prompts them to experience a shared potentiality.
In this moment, Horn depicts Jake in a comical manner so as to set the tone for this comical event. The original joke hints directly at the theme of history, memory, and potentiality:
Before he met her, Jake used to feel like the butt of that old joke describing a Rhodes Scholar: a bright young man with a brilliant future behind him. Ha ha. She was the first person in years who didn’t see him that way. (214)
Even though she sees his future ahead of him, Horn still depicts a comic scene that is replete with animality and Jewishness (animals are, as I have argued elsewhere, can be used as comical figures for Jewishness). Although Leora keeps the Sabbath, she has a ritual of watching movies on Friday not after her Sabbath meal. The movie that evening is The Planet of the Apes. That evening, the movie was a prelude to possible sexual encounter. But it fails:
After aping the apes, along with the human among them lost on his own planet, they took off their clothes, but not all of them. Jake asked her once more, but Leora couldn’t help him. (214)
Leora, it seems, is not interested in sex. Jake is comically frustrated. And this leads to a comical dialogue: “Oh, so I’m the kind of boy you don’t sleep with.” “Yes, that’s right,” Leora answered. “You’re very Leorable, you know.” He said “after a moment of trying to decide whether or not to say what was on his mind.” He explains that Leorable is the “opposite of adorable,” she throws a pillow at him and she “cowered in the corner of the bed, aping the human captured by the apes, until they started communicating in ape noises again. Growling the words in her nearly incomprehensible ape voice, she grunted, “Would you put my pajamas on for me, and then I’ll send you home?”(214)
The experience, though comical, is humbling: “Fighting his own fire with all his might, he turned back around to where she was sitting half-naked on the bed…He made a face like a crazed alien ape and put the pajama pants over her head”(215). The fact that the moment of self-defeat is not tragic but comic is telling. It suggests an interesting reading of Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik’s reading of man’s “self-defeat” as, on the one hand, an articulation of “tragic reality,” and on the other an “image of God.” (It is highly likely that Horn may have read his work The Lonely Man of Faith where he articulates this idea.)
Jake’s comical self-defeat as animalic and yet very human and even “in the image” of God. It suggests what Rabbi Joseph Solveichik would call tzim-tzum (withdrawal). But this withdrawal is comical and suggests a new possibility that is announced by laughter. Horn notes this:
Leora started laughing from inside the pants, so hard that he had to pull them back off her head so that she wouldn’t suffocate. But when the elastic waist stretched around the crown of her head….she looked at him with a gaping smile he had never seen before. (215)
Leora’s laugh is of a laughing creature. And this smile is – so to speak – revelatory. It is “in the image” of God. And Jake notices it:
Jake saw that smile and knew, as if he had seen her face projected in a giant image on a bare wall with a voice in the background reading a caption, exactly what she was thinking. That thought made him forget about feeling insulted for flattered, made him forget about how much he wanted her, because he suddenly understood that she was going to be his. (215)
This moment of revelation – beyond desire and self-consciousness – is a comical event that is the prelude to marriage and what Levinas would call fecundity.
Someday, he heard a voice reciting the thought written across her beautiful forehead, you’ll be taking our daughter into bed, and you’ll put her pajama pants over her head and make her laugh so loud, and I’ll be standing before the doorway waiting tor you to drink in my smile, unable to believe how lucky I am. (215)
What Jake experiences is something Spinoza would regard as arbitrary. But for Levinas and Horn it is central: it is a moment of potentiality and freedom. It is a future that pardons that past and makes room for the other. It is a source of joy and hope and it is central to Jewishness. Being in the image, for Horn, has to do with a shared sense of purpose that is linked to children and the future. Fecundity is, as Levinas says, pardon. It is also, as Derrida briefly suggests with respect to Sara, an irruption of the possible. But, most importantly, this possibility is announced in a laugh and a smile. And it can be articulated in fiction which is able to show – by way of its lacunae – how the threads of the past can find a knot in the potentiality of a future which takes the past into account. It suggests that reality need not be tragic (as Rabbi Soloveichik suggests) and that humility (self-defeat) may have a comic rejoinder. But that rejoinder can only be made in view of the possibility of new life. And it can only be made by a “laughing creature” whose laughter is “in the image.”