Author Ben Marcus and the subversion of Jewish mysticism

Author Ben Marcus and the subversion of Jewish mysticism

Despite basing a novel on his study of Kabbalah, he’s uneasy about being labeled a Jewish writer

Author Ben Marcus. (courtesy)
Author Ben Marcus. (courtesy)

Reading Ben Marcus’ latest collection of stories, “Leaving The Sea,” you cannot help but notice that layers of information seem to be missing. In the opening story, “What Have You Done,” we witness a conversation between two men at a family gathering.

The first man claims to have seen someone being taken away on a stretcher. The other man then fails to acknowledge this fact, and it’s never mentioned again.

Similarly, in the “The Loyalty Protocol” we meet Edward, a member of a local cult. The exact purpose of the cult is never fully explained. Towards the end of the story, there is a scene where Edward is waving goodbye to his father through a bus window. But the reader is not sure if the father will ever see his son again. Because within the subversive undertone of Marcus’ prose, something seems to scream: “There are forces out in the cosmos, beyond our control, that are transforming things in ways we cannot imagine.”

Ambivalence, metaphor, and anxiety, are all extremely prevalent throughout Ben Marcus’ oeuvre, which began in 1995 when he published his debut book of short stories “The Age of Wire and String.”

“When I read, I like to feel tense, compelled, drawn in, or curious,” the 46-year-old writer admits, from his home in Brooklyn, New York.

“And to me that means not constantly filling a story full of facts. There is a way to keep a reader in suspension if you leave things out. Of course it can turn into a game if you leave too much out. So I’m careful not to do it for its own sake. But sometimes if you give too much away, people tend to lose interest,” he adds, with a sense of conviction.

Marcus claims this skepticism and acceptance of the unknown is something he’s inherited from the endless hours he’s spent reading Kabbalah.

“What I most personally connect to in Jewish mysticism is the embracing of uncertainty,” he says. “There is this recurrent sense that the most important things can never be understood, and they are always going to be ineffable and allusive to us. And that if we feel that we are starting to understand God, or the design of the universe, then we are most certainly on the wrong track.”

“I’m attracted to this notion that any comprehension that we have is an illusion,” says Marcus. “And that certainty itself is a sign that we are not thinking properly. This may be my own slightly twisted interpretation of [Jewish mysticism] but it’s a really important idea to me. And something I keep coming back to as a writer.”

Ben Marcus's most recent book, 'Leaving the Sea: Stories.' (courtesy)
Ben Marcus’s most recent book, ‘Leaving the Sea: Stories.’ (courtesy)

In Marcus’ 2012 novel, “The Flame Alphabet,” the reader witnesses a very strange phenomenon. It begins in upstate New York, when Jewish parents begin getting sick. This sickness increases depending on how close the parents get to their children’s speech. The outbreak then spreads all over the United States.

Marcus loves to tell stories that are cloaked in a matrix of hermeneutic-post-modern conceits. But at least two fairly definite ideas seem to be explored in “The Flame Alphabet.” Firstly, that Judaic tradition contains a weapon in the form of divine words. And secondly, that there is a constant vulnerability always bubbling towards the surface when one examines Jewish culture and history.

In this fictional universe, anti-Semitism is rampant, Jews have to worship in prayer huts, and language essentially becomes a poison. And so Samuel, the novel’s main protagonist and narrator — along with a cult figure called LeBov — begins trying to construct a new, unpolluted way of communicating.

As he is doing this, he describes how “the Hebrew letter is like a form of nature [and] the blueprint for some flower whose name I forget.”

Marcus says the more he looked into Kabbalah and a number of Hebrew texts, the less bizarre his fictional world seemed to appear.

‘I think this idea that no matter what level of letters we produce, we are constantly calling out God’s name, is tremendously fascinating’

“I think this idea [in the Hebrew Biblical tradition] that no matter what level of letters we produce, we are constantly calling out God’s name, is tremendously fascinating. Even though at the same time it’s not allowed. This set of rules about how to manage our language, feels like this terrible catch 22.”

“So it felt very natural for me to take this one step further, and talk about language as a kind of poison that we are not meant to use. And if we use it, we will damage ourselves.”

Despite looking towards the Torah, the Talmud, and Jewish mysticism for guidance and inspiration for his last novel, Marcus feels slightly wary of labeling himself a Jewish writer.

“I think the term Jewish writer makes a lot of sense for people who are describing the Jewish experience. But I don’t think I’m necessarily doing that. Even though ‘The Flame Alphabet’ does, in some subversive way, look into Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, and Jewish ideas,” says Marcus.

“I think there is a more quotidian way of dramatizing in literature what it’s like to be a Jewish person in America. And there are some very strange and beautiful ideas at the heart of that. So I really just see myself more in that side of things. Because I didn’t have a profoundly Jewish upbringing that I can tell stories about.”

‘The Jewish sensibility mixes in really well with art’

Marcus was born in Chicago in 1967. His mother was a third generation Irish Catholic, while his father’s side of the family were Jews who came from Russia in the late 19th century. His upbringing was fairly agnostic, he admits. But at 12 he decided to embrace his Jewish faith. His mother had lost contact with her own culture and family, so becoming a Bar Mitzvah was really about keeping in touch with a sense of tradition, identity, and family duty, he says.

Even though religion played practically no role in his life growing up, by the time Marcus entered New York University as a young man, where he studied theology and philosophy, the questions both subjects posed about existence and ethics, began to interest him indefinitely.

“I don’t really go to services or practice. But I am interested in Jewish intellectual history, philosophy, and the so-called Jewish perspective,” he admits.

Marcus has no desire in giving himself over to any ideology. In fact, you could say his writing is fully committed to breaking certainty apart, piece-by-piece. But his Jewish heritage, paradoxically, seems to tie in with his own personal, existential-philosophy.

“I guess I have the feeling that the Jewish sensibility mixes in really well with art,” he says. “It’s not exactly something that I feel I have to work out or examine. I think of Kafka as a Jewish writer. I think of the loneliness and the sorrow as being essentially Jewish. But when I wonder about that, I’m not quite sure why. I’m not even so sure how important is to call it Jewish or not.”

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