Friday, April 9, 2010

My name is Asher Lev

In an effort to redeem my personal reading from the cycle of chick lit and other fluff reading I've recently been indulging in, I picked up my copy of Potok's My Name is Asher Lev. I remember trying to read it in high school but putting it away eventually because I found it too difficult and disturbing (I think in part because of the description of the classes Asher takes in nude figure drawing, although those scenes disturb me far less as an adult, for better or worse).

I struggled again this time, for a number of reasons. The writing is still beautiful and evocative, but I find the tension between Asher and his parents disturbing, if only because as a parent with young children the thought that I might someday find myself similarly unable to relate to my children is heartbreaking. Mostly, though, I'm disturbed by the book's underlying theme that to be an artist--a real artist--means somehow being outside of and apart from any community you may have been born into. As Asher reads in a book on art given him by a well-meaning friend, a true artist should have no creeds. The book then unfolds with Asher's struggle to be faithful to his artistic gift and his strict Hasidic Ladover Jewish upbringing.

The part of me that responds to my academic training understands this: some of the best artwork was produced by an artist in the midst of some ethical or theological struggle. A good friend of mine once told me that he had finally accepted that he would never be a truly profound writer because, as a faithful LDS man, he found answers to most of the profound questions of life in his theology, and had, therefore, no questions to truly agonize over. Maybe this is a simplistic understanding: after all, even with a theology that is fairly comprehensive, there remain plenty of questions about how that theology can translate into day-to-day living.

But a deeper part of me resists this idea--why should one's devout faith preclude one's ability to create masterpieces? Certainly, there are some cases where it does, cases where people presume upon facile and easy answers and produce shallow or cliche'd works. (There's a passage that I love in Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water, where she argues that if a work is bad art, it's bad religion, no matter how pious the subject matter.) But as someone who's fairly orthodox myself (although I'm certainly not in any imminent danger of writing--or painting--any kind of masterpiece), I don't like to think that orthodoxy, in and of itself, means an inability to think or create in any meaningful way.

What do you think? Does the creation of great art require a certain separateness and skepticism?


  1. Rosalyn,
    I'm so happy to find your blog. I loved the previous post, (Middlemarch is still my favorite book of all time), and thoroughly enjoyed this post as well. I think the creation of great art, writing, and music is like lightning striking. While the human mind is determined to set boundaries regarding such things, the genius to create true masterpieces seems to spring from those who do not heed them.

  2. I love the way you think, Rosalyn. Of course, it helps that we were equally-self-absorbed sixth graders together. : ) I have often wondered the same thing about masterpieces--and as a self-absorbed thirty-something I often imagine that someday I will find that hidden genius inside myself to create a masterpiece despite my commitment to religion.

    For me the question is one of definition b/c often "masterpieces" are simply new ideas that emerge and set themselves apart from the bulk of society's thinking. All that liminal space, etc. that the post-moderns talk about. So I really think that as society becomes more secular, and more apt to focus on the senses (sensual and sensuous), people like us who immerse ourselves in spiritual thinking might actually have "fresh and new" ideas that can become masterpieces in their own way. At least that's what I keep telling myself. : )