“In Hebrew, the word davar … means word and thing. No distinction. We see and hear the world with our minds, with words, in categories, not in raw sensory data. I believe in holiness because I experience it. I don’t view it as a personal presence, but holiness is as vivid as sexual pleasure or hunger.”
The words are spoken by Malkah, the central and anchoring figure in Marge Piercy’s He, She and It (1) and one of two given prominence as a point of view character. The other is her granddaughter Shira. Their spiritual lens is Jewish and they live in a 2059 imagined by the author in 1991. This world has experienced social breakdown, massive population loss and partial desertification due to the co-arising phenomena of corporate oligarchy and unchecked climate change.
I read this book again last week because I half remembered it and wanted to refresh myself. I had no other agenda. But as I went on it seemed to be contributing to my inquiry about the meaning of ‘creativity’ and ‘magic’ (Druidry’s Awen) in a context where material and social forces need to be addressed at their own level. For me, He, She and It also shows how speculative fiction may itself be a creative cultural force.
Malkah asserts that, “in fascination with the power of the word and a belief that the word is primary over matter, you may be talking nonsense about physics, but you’re telling the truth about people. A person reacts and decides what’s good or bad. For us the word is primary and paramount. We can curse each other to death or cure with words. With words we court each other, with words we punish each other. We construct the world out of words. The mind can kill or heal because it is the body.”
Hence, the creative word is always “perilous”, giving true life to what has been inchoate and voice to what has been dumb. “It makes known what has been unknown, that perhaps we were more comfortable not knowing.” What we cannot name, we cannot talk about. When we do name something, we empower it, and the naming has consequences – “as when we call an itch love, or when we call our envy righteous”. More creatively, “we may empower ourselves” for if “we can think about and talk about what is hurting us”, then “we may come together with others who have felt this same pain,” and try to do something about it.
Malkah likes to tell the story of the Maharal of Prague*, who in 1600 defended the Jewish Ghetto there against anti-Semitic attack through the creation of a golem, a man of clay, large and strong, animated through Kabbalist magic. It becomes a second timeline in the book, though always in the form of Malkah telling the story. She describes the creation of Joseph, the golem, with relish.
The face of the Maharal is pale with ecstasy. He feels the power coming through him. It is the power of creation. It is always dangerous, it is lightning striking the tower and the world set on end. Word into matter and everything born again. He feels the energy of something strange and new and terrible and focused to a spear piercing through him and into the clay before him. He sees his own hands shining with a blue-white radiance. His hands are crackling. His hair stands up with electricity.
All the combinations of letters and vowels he chants, and the hidden name of G-d he speaks, and the sacred numbers that built the atoms of the universe. He has become transparent with power that is pouring through him. His flesh is blackened like glass that has stood in a fire. His eyes are silver as the moon, without pupils or iris. He knows in that moment more than he has ever known in his life and more than he will know in five minutes.
But we also know that power like this, even within the mythos, is a rare and precious gift. When the assault on the ghetto comes, developing out of a Good Friday procession, the strong but simple Joseph says to the Maharal, “’your prayers as strong as my fists’”. The Maharal demurs. “’Prayer doesn’t work that way’, the Maharal says quietly and sadly. ‘It makes the heart and mind strong in belief, but it doesn’t keep one leaf falling from the tree. Still, I will pray’”. The ghetto defence is successful, though with many losses and much destruction. The aggressors are turned back. This is partly down to Joseph directly and partly because he inspires the community to rally. The Christian state levies reparations on the Jewish community for all the trouble that’s been caused, and life goes on. Survival – but with no change in underlying conditions. Joseph, who has an inbuilt tendency to violence, is put to back to sleep (though not destroyed) by the very magician who made him that way.
The same is true of 2059. The people there are vulnerable and have enemies. They live in harsh physical conditions, though without losing the capacity to recognise and create beauty. They too wrestle with the ethics and politics of what we now call artificial intelligence, which in their world has become, and in our world is becoming, a realistic proposition.
Malka’s conclusion seems to be that we can sometimes access resources beyond our little selves, though we don’t really own them, and can’t rely on them to exempt or rescue us from things we don’t like or want. But they do have a role to play and can at times make a difference. “We partake in creation with ha-Shem, the Name, the Word that speaks us, the breath that sings life through us. We are tool and vessel and will. We connect with powers beyond our own fractional consciousness to the rest of the living being we all make up together. The power flows through us just as it flows through the tiger and through the oak and through the river breaking over its rocks, and we know in our core the fire that fuels the sun.”
(1) Marge Piercy He, She and It (Kindle edition). First published in 1991 (as Body of Glass outside the USA). 1993 Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.
*The Maharal was an historical figure, the title being the Hebrew acronym of Moreinu Ha-Ra Loew, used for Judah Loew be Bezalel,1512/26? -1609) and widely known to scholars as the Maharal of Prague. In 1592, he was granted an audience with Rudolf II, the mystically inclined Holy Roman Emperor. This was probably to discuss Kabbalah. The legend concerning his creation of a golem to defend the Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks is thought to be a German literary invention of the early nineteenth century.