part 4 (scenes 10-12) of a 90 minute collage of music, images and texts, based on the lives of rabbi nachman of breslav and salon hostess rahel varnhagen.
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APPRECIATING MY MUSICAL SHOW
1. GENERAL THEORY
Of course, the best way to begin to appreciate most works of art is just to experience them a few times and form your own conclusions. The opinions of the creator of an artwork are merely incidental at that stage of the process. And certainly once an artwork is created it takes on a life of its own, just like a child more and more slips out of the control of its parents. Nevertheless, I think we will agree that this particular artwork is unique in its form, what it seeks to accomplish, and the demands it makes on its audience. “Rahel! Rahel!” is an ambitious project which reaches out beyond the realm of art and grapples with major issues of religion and philosophy. Whether I as the author have succeeded in my project is for you the audience to decide, but since my artwork is intended to operate on several different levels I feel it appropriate for me to lay out for you the plan of what might be there for you if I have succeeded in carrying out my original goals. Just as I did not compromise in creating the piece, I will not compromise here in discussing the piece. If you don’t “get it”, maybe I failed and there ain’t nothing there to “get” in the first place. Or if you don’t “get it”, maybe you need to do some homework on your own, or just give up on it and go do something else more appropriate for your talents.
Nachman of Breslav wrote “my Torah is entirely ‘b’hinot’ “. “B’hinot”, in Hebrew, means “aspects of”, “associations”, “points of view”. For example, if I think of vanilla ice cream then I can associate to that idea chocolate ice cream, or cows, or a forest of vanilla beans somewhere in Madagascar. In other words, there is no limit to the range of possible associations I might get. Nachman might have said instead, “my Torah is entirely induction”, and then we would contrast inductive logic to deductive logic. Deductive logic begins with a single idea and like an upside down tree follows the ramifications of that idea out into the myriad subdivisions and corollaries of that idea. Scientific textbooks usually are written deductively. Inductive logic begins with the vast realm of concrete living awareness experiences and step by step moves up the upside down tree back to a single encompassing idea that strives to somehow include all of the original experiences in its breadth. Francis Bacon in the 14th century championed inductive logic. Theologically speaking, Breslav kabbalah is inductive thinking, while Chabad kabbalah is deductive thinking. Nachman begins with a wide range of Torah texts and trusts in associative links to get to his main points, while Shneur Zalman, author of the Chabad “Tanya”, writes an orderly textbook in which he systematically lays out his major and minor premisses. But both authors are using the same tree style thinking. Nachman moves up the upside down tree, while Shneur Zalman moves down the upside down tree, the kabbalistic tree of life on which the “sefirot” (points of view) are hanging like Christmas tree ornaments. For philosophy in general, this tree is the tree of dialectical thinking, whether we are forking from one branch to two or from two branches to one. Both types of forking involve moving logically from thesis to antithesis to synthesis in one way or another. Dialectical thinking underlies much of world culture, whether in religion, philosophy, healing or the arts.
Turning now to “Rahel! Rahel!”, this work is offered as an example of dialectical thinking, especially in the inductive tradition which we find in the work in Nachman of Breslav. It is therefore one more chapter to be added to Nachman’s own “Likutei Moharan” (“Collected Essays”). I do in this piece what he does in Likutei Moharan, with the addition that I insert the man Nachman himself into the same dialectical process he uses. I begin with Nachman’s biography and writings. Then I work by associations and trust that somehow you as audience will have the intelligence, motivation and patience to “get it” when it all comes together at the end. Or if you don’t get it on your own, perhaps you will get it once I show you what I am driving at. You might not agree with my interpretation, but at least I hope you will consider it for a moment.
The piece begins with two dialectically opposite points of view, that of Rahel (Varnhagen) and that of Menachem (code for Nachman). Specifically, I begin with Hannah Arendt’s “Rahel Varnhagen” text, and Nachman’s “Likutei Moharan”. At the beginning I make no attempt to bridge the gap. On the surface, it is a story of how some religious fanatic shows up at a wild secular party looking for trouble. Nachman wants to bring Rahel back to the fold of orthodox Judaism. Lots of luck! That is to say, theatrically speaking the piece begins in the style of “naturalism”, real life melodrama between good guys and bad guys. Who is the good guy depends upon your own point of view. I personally see value and garbage, sense and nonsense, in both camps. But by the end of the show we have left naturalism behind and we are at a different level altogether, that of symbolism. For gradually Menachem begins to see in Rahel the embodiment of “the Shekhinah”, while gradually Rahel begins to see in Nachman the coming Messiah. Menachem is quite explicit, and gives us an extended lecture about how Rahel is the Shekhinah, the female aspect of God. Rahel also gives us an extended lecture about how she herself is the Shekhinah of God. But nowhere does she say that Menachem is the Messiah. Rather she comes to that conclusion by means of a deep metaphor, that of the “night” in the song “Night And Day”. She discovers that by killing off Menachem (in the form of Captain Ahab) she also is dying. This is a transparent alllusion to the underlying dialectic of the whole project. The thesis and the antithesis need to suffer death in order that the new encompassing synthesis can emerge. Rahel and Menachem are the thesis and the antithesis, while the End of Days, or Jewish Messiah, or Jesus, or whatever label you wish to use is the emerging synthesis. Dialectical thinkers here refer to the “negation of the negations”, since each extreme of the polarity is itself a negation of the original Oneness. So the label “Messiah” refers here merely to the emerging Oneness, what Gestalt therapists label “the coming solution”. This way of thinking runs the risk of putting God within the dialectic, as Hegel was wont to do. But pietists like Nachman of Breslav counter this tendency by emphasizing the power of the Void as a stage of the dialectic, the moment at which we allow ourselves to not know the answer for a long enough time to discover some new ideas. Now I do not want to get involved in the battle over which flavor of Messiah is the most tasty. I personally identify with the Jewish community, and I am an ardent Zionist, as will be clear to you if you read my show about the Cave of Machpelah. However, in this RAHEL show I leave that question hanging by having the wedding of Menachem and Rahel followed by Rahel’s allusions to Jesus. I could have added another scene and had her extol the virtues of Mohammed or the Buddha, and the basic meaning of the play would have remained the same.
Just as we can look in the direction of “the coming solution” to get the big picture, likewise we can look back in the direction of “origin” to seek an initial Oneness that has been negated by the necessities of existence. The forward looking direction is that of Aristotle’s “final cause”, which is to be attained via committed authentic action. The backward direction is that of Plato’s “anamnesis”, “not forgetting”, and the emphasis in anamnesis is on entering the void of “not knowing”. This is what kabbalists, following Rabbi Isaac Luria, label “tsimtsum”, contraction of ego. In any real happening the two points of view, that of Aristotle and that of Plato, are intertwined, and RAHEL! RAHEL! is no exception. But if we look back to a hypothetical place before this play begins, then what or who is the Oneness that is implied? What or who is the Oneness that is fragmented as the play begins? From the point of view of a dialectical therapy, such as Gestalt Therapy, we can infer that since Rahel and Menachem are the antitheses, therefore I as their author must be the Gestalt client who is presenting my own search for integration by means of this playwriting project. At the same time, to the extent that you can identify with the characters I have created you as audience member also are invited to be that Gestalt Therapy client undergoing your own healing vicariously, as though you are attending a groupwork Gestalt session at which I am doing most of the work and you are sitting patiently watching.
RAHEL! RAHEL! is a collage of music, text and images. At the same time it is a tragic drama in the tradition of Aristotle’s theory of tragedy. That is to say, it is Brechtian formalism and Stanislavsky naturalism at the same time. It is Plato and Aristotle simultaneously. The tragedy aspect of the script is that both sides of the dialectic, Nachman and Rahel, need to die in order for the final Oneness to emerge, like the legendary phoenix, from their ashes. The junk collage builds up a wide range of “b’hinot”, a net of associations, that undergoes Platonic collection, or gestalt formation, or a figure/ground reversal. These fragmentary associations then coalesce at the end into a single idea. That final single idea is the messianic notion that the one and the many, God and the world, somehow can – in the manner of Humpty Dumpty – be put back together again.
As the play goes on this quest for the one in the many, identity in difference, or return to origin focuses on Menachem’s aggressive approach to Rahel and her aggressive defense against his preaching. The dialectical process requires that there be two opposite extremes that burn each other up in a final conflagration, and that is the reason for all the creative aggression. The battle of Ahab and the Goddess Of The Ocean is the peak moment of the dialectic, in which the two fanatics do each other in. Each has evolved into a caricature of itself. Ahab symbolizes a hyper-chassid determined to embody the Talmudic story about the big fish that spouts the two messiahs by harpooning Moby Dick. He sees himself simultaneously as the final Messiah Son Of David and the penultimate Messiah Son Of Joseph. The latter, the warrior messiah, operates on the level of “the spirit of Cain”, as a force of evil on the Other Side, with a lust for bloody vengeance in his crusade to accomplish positive holy objectives. Likewise Rahel, by taking Fichte’s philosophy of Romantic Individualism to its absurd Nazi limits fancies herself to be the warrior Great Lady Of The Ocean, making a joke out of Zohar kabbalah in the process. The complex junk collage symbolizing the final battle between Menachem and Rahel, between Gog and Magog as it were, is at the same time the moment of Platonic collection and Aristotelian tragedy.
At that point I call up a text of Julia Kristeva about how the female side represents what she labels the explosion of the Semiotic into the Law Of The Father. We can say the same thing by referring to Aristotle’s final cause or Plato’s anamnesis as the healing Oneness that blasts the pseudo-wholeness of a rigid structure to pieces and restores the primordial free flow of energy and infinite possibilities to the world. From this point of view the Indian guru Rajneesh wrote, “it is only pure if it is chaotic”. The Law Of The Father here is any myopic reduction of religion to an oversimplified do-it-or-else rulebook taught to children at a tender age, and swallowed whole as an unassimilated introject. Just as Rahel is demolishing Menachem’s simplistic Judaism, Menachem is demolishing Rahel’s simplistic Nazi totalitarianism. Visually I associate the right angles of a swastica to the squares of a checker board, and this accounts for the checker board wings that the Goddess Of The Ocean is wearing.
3. RAHEL! RAHEL! AND LIKUTEI MOHARAN
In my essays on Likutei Moharan I decode Nachman’s kabbalistic word salad of b’hinot into basic philosophical ideas. Let’s review some of that process here, and relate the theory to the RAHEL show as an example of practice. First of all, the notion of the Shekhinah, which in the kabbalah is a legend with endless ramifications and endless layers of associations. One metaphor Nachman uses is that of two birds that when they fly properly represent the pure singing of a properly inspired singer or prophet. In any concrete living experience a person, as it were, radiates out (from his forehead, it is said) a ray of holy light, which Nachman sees as a holy pidgeon or canary or eagle or whatever. At that same moment, the object of our attention or awareness likewise emits a holy pidgeon or canary or eagle or whatever. The holy birds meet halfway, fall in love, come to an orgasm of oneness in the manyness, and voila! We get a moment of healthy, contactful experience in our life. Nachman might have gotten the idea from Aristotle’s theory of psychology, or from the notion of a phoenix arising from the ashes of two other dead birds, or more likely he got the idea from various Torah commentaries on Genesis, commentaries which focus on the moment at which Adam generates Eve from his own being. If so, then bird A is Adam, while bird B is Eve, and the ongoing world of our contact boundary of lived experience is the messianic state of authentic action or the primordial state of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden where the pure rivers of experience flow endlessly. Adam is continually “knowing” Eve in a state of ongoing orgasm. In the RAHEL show, I have Menachem (Adam, bird A, sefirah chochmah) projecting onto Rahel the role of Eve, bird B, sefirah binah, in an idealistic passion to restore the experience of “oneness in manyness” to the Jewish people as a whole. The encounter of the two birds, of Adam and Eve, of chochmah and binah, ideally generates a moment of authentic healthy action or enlightenment, depending upon whether your perspective is Aristotle or Plato. The Shekhinah is, then, the side that Adam projects out of himself. On a macrocosmic scale the Shekhinah is the created world, the female aspect that God as male projects out of Himself. Of course, in the microcosm of human experience things never go quite according to Divine expectations, and the next thing you know this pure phenomenological process is stymied when Eve/Lilit/Moon gets fed up with shining only by reflected light, and she wants to compete with Adam/Sun as the generator of her own holy light. Things then can get quite complicated, as the plot of the RAHEL show indicates. For on the one hand Menachem wants to restore the Shekhinah, his other half, to her original purity and power to hasten his own integration, and on the other hand his efforts at dominating her accomplish the exact opposite result. She rebels and is all set to gobble him up after cooking him and his cohorts in a big black pot. Likewise, Rahel is no more successful in projecting Menachem as her own Shekhinah, when she herself assumes the traditional masculine macho role. She uses the cannon as a substitute penis, her own Moby Dick to do her projecting! I, Franklyn Wepner, as author, of this kaleidoscopic collage of images, I keep discovering new nuances of interpretation, and I invite you to get your own hits and come up with your own “Torah” exegesis. Referring back to Nachman’s analogy of the two birds, the unpure state of two rabid birds (since doves originally were dinosaurs) pecking at each other, Nachman relates to an unholy cantor singing primarily to impress his wife or to advance professionally in the system. Since Menachem and Rahel end up “following after their eyes”, worshipping the golden calf, being possessed by the “spirit of Cain”, hence they deserve to be demolished as the play draws to its conclusion. Menachem and Rahel, as caricatures of themselves, both end up stuck on the “day” side of reality, while it is the “night” side of reality which remains the true ground of experience. The final moments of the play represent this figure/ground reversal, as the night reasserts it authority as the One capable of encompassing the Many. The epilogue scene makes the statement that this primordial One/night is not just Jewish property, but is available to all life through the dialectical process which the play embodies. Amen.
This show, like Likutei Moharan, is a collage of fragments. No one fragment is the main idea of the show, but certainly all of them need to be acknowledged and given credit. If I overlook a few, it is because there are so many of them. In a sense, life is one big plagiarism, which we label “tradition” or “learning”. Do I need to run around getting permission from 100 artists and writers? Probably not, and perhaps I will get sued one day. First of all I will acknowledge the Torah which Nachman pilfered to write Likutei Moharan and Arthur Green pilfered to write “The Tormented Master”. Then I will acknowledge the writings of Rahel Varnhagen, which Hannah Arendt pilfered to write “Rahel Varnhagen”. Certainly the drawings of shtetl life of Reiss and the photos of Vishniac deserve mention, as well as the paintings of Chagall, of which three appear here. I ought to acknowledge the music of the western culture from which I stole the rules of harmony and counterpoint which underlie my musical score. Overall, this whole process of video collaging would not have been a realistic option had it not been for the powerful resources which the Art Explosion and the Google libraries of images make available. Last but certainly not least, there is my mama, my dear “chicken soup mama” who, incidentally, never bothered to distinguish between milchik and fleishik, or even between kosher and nonkosher! But nevertheless, certainly her heart was all for me, and without her endless support and encouragement and love the junk collage that is Franklyn Wepner would never have coalesced into the artist Franklyn Wepner.