||.Jonathan Safran Foer
||LOVE IS BLIND AND DEAF
Adam and Eve lived together happily for many years. Being blind, Adam never had to see Eve’s mustache, or her crooked teeth, or her sagging, veiny breasts. And being deaf, Eve never had to hear how stupid her husband was, how unreasonable, and arrogant, and downright awful. It was good.
One day, the happy couple learned of an apple that could cure all ignorance. Ignorant to the idea that not all ignorance is bad, they ate of the fruit. Sure enough, they acquired absolute knowledge. Eve finally was able to grasp the purpose of suffering (there is no purpose), and Adam got his head around free will (it depends on how you define your terms). They understood jealousy and finitude, multi-variable calculus and laughter at things that aren’t funny. Furthermore, they were cured of their blindness and deafness. And cured, too, of their marital felicity.
What, each wondered, have I gotten myself into?
First they fought, then they despaired, then they threw some things, then they debated about who owned what. It was bad. They hollered at each other from the opposite sides of the Garden to which they’d exiled each other.
You’re stupid and wicked!
Privately, they prayed to God to give them back their lack of sight and hearing. They prayed, «Let us be like we used to be». But He refused them, or ignored them, or simply never was reached by their prayers, being deaf and blind himself.
Neither Adam nor Eve cared about being right, nor did they care about the over-abundance of beautiful things that could be seen and heard in the world. None of the paintings, none of the books or music, not even nature itself was capable of providing any sustenance, if they didn’t first have happiness.
Adam went looking for Eve one night, as the newly named animals had their first dreams. Eve saw him and went to him.
«I’m here», she told him, because his eyes were covered with fig leaves. He reached his hands out in front of him, feeling for her face, her breasts.
She told him, «You are wise and good».
He told her, «You are beautiful». Although she didn’t hear him, because her ears were stuffed with rolled up fig leaves.
METHUSELAH’S HAPPIEST HOUR
Methuselah had 969 years to think about his will, but it wasn’t until the final hour of his life that he started to make corrections. It doesn’t really seem right, he thought, reaching for his pencil, and his next breath, to split everything evenly among my children. They don’t need evenly, and truth be told, I don’t love them evenly. There are a few that I don’t even like. I don’t want my final act in this world to be guided by etiquette. I’ll do it my way, for once. So he erased the will. But then again, he thought, divvying out my things in any way other than evenly is going to cause a lot of unnecessary jealousy among them, and I’d just as soon avoid my death being the cause of a massive headache, so I suppose it probably is best just to do as is expected of me. It’s only money, anyway. He rewrote the will. Or, he thought, erasing the will, I could skip the children altogether and give everything to my wife, that good woman. It struck him as such a good idea that he wrote it down. Of course she isn’t going to live forever, and do I really want to give her the burden, or the opportunity, of choosing these things that I can’t make up my mind about now? And what about my previous wives? He erased his will. And what about my friends, anyway? They’re the one’s who’ve really stuck by me. Just because I don’t happen to share blood or bodily fluids with them I’m not supposed to share my things with them? That doesn’t seem right. He rewrote the will. He thought. He turned the pencil over and erased. But what about those less fortunate then me? Here’s a chance to do some good in the world. I’ve been the recipient of so much. What better time than now to give back? They’re called the needy for a reason, right? He turned the pencil over, and rewrote his will. Shit. The synagogue. He turned the pencil over. Shit. The liberals. He turned the pencil over, thinking, over and over...
It wasn’t long before the stronger animals started to eat the weaker animals, two by two. At first, Noah tried to keep them apart, and was himself nearly killed in an effort to save an animal whose kind no longer exists. But ultimately, he conceded that given the dwindling supply of food, some would have to be sacrificed so that others might survive. By the time the world had dried out, the strongest animals were like Russian dolls - within their bellies were animals with animals within their bellies... - and the vast majority of the species that had entered the ark were extinct.
Once the rain had stopped, Noah sent out a dove, which returned with an olive branch like this one. He sent the dove out again, and again it returned with an olive branch. He sent the dove once more, and this time it didn’t return. This was the sign that there was ground on which to build the world anew.
On land, the animals found it impossible to relinquish the habits they had acquired during their desperation. While it was no longer necessary for their survival, the strong continued to attack the weak. The weak horded, they clung, they could not eat a meal without thinking, if distantly, that it might be their last. Not even Noah could shake the desperation. He stood by the window, one night, unable to fall asleep. (He hardly ever slept). The branches of the trees reached upward, and he felt a flickering in his stomach, which he mistook for hunger, even though he’d gorged himself an hour before.
It wasn’t hunger, but the memory of the dove. Noah had sent it from the ark for a third time, and when it returned with another olive branch in its beak, he broke its neck, and secretly took it down to the kitchen. It was the faint beating of the dove that he felt by the window, the dove which had come back, providing absolutely no reason to think that the Earth was again ready for animal life.
THE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL OF BABEL
As the legendary Tower of Babel was building toward the sky, there was a counter-construction, underground. Burrowing deeper and deeper - using only crude shovels and bare hands - was another civilization: those who lived in silence. Rabbis gave sermons in silence, and their congregations gossiped, whispered and lamented in silence (beating their chests, once a year, silently). Commerce was practiced in silence - haggling was done with unmoving lips. Lovers moaned silently. At weddings, quartets played silently - cellists ran unstrung bows over unstrung cellos, harpists combed hair that wasn’t there. Babies were born silently (they cried, but silently), and people died silently (they uttered their last words in silence). As with the Tower, no one was understood.
The Tower was destroyed for its arrogance, but the tunnel was not spared for its humility. (The prayers, after all, were silent. As were the curses). At a certain point, those burrowing the tunnel’s outer suburbs made a wrong turn, and surfaced. Light flooded the tunnel, and the inhabitants - who had never, in their lives, seen the day - were blinded, they cried, they walked out and into the world, and were fruitful, and multiplied.
Abraham led Isaac to a secluded spot and lifted a knife. The angels cried, and their tears fell into Abraham’s eyes, blinding him. As the knife was about to fall, a shepherd intervened, and told Abraham that God was satisfied with his demonstration of faith.
Abraham’s wife, Sarah, heard that Abraham had taken Isaac to offer him as a sacrifice, and she traveled to search for them. When she reached Hebron, she was informed that her son had been spared. The good news was too overwhelming for her, and she died.
When Isaac learned of his mother’s death, his eyes filled with tears that never would evaporate. Everything he saw for the rest of his life - every blade of grass, every bloody orchard - was through the film of his mother’s death.
As for Abraham: his demonstration of faith cost him his faith. He circumcised himself, as a mark of God’s betrayal. He circumcised Isaac. And when his children had children, he cut them, too.
As Isaac aged, his vision began to fail him. Each morning, a new layer of black gauze was spread over his eyes, and it wasn’t too long before he couldn’t distinguish between his sons, Jacob and Esau.
Being the older of the two, Esau was entitled to his father’s blessing, the family birthright. Being the cleverer of the two, Jacob was determined to get it. He wrapped layers of meat under his clothes and covered his arms in wool, to fool his father into thinking he was the more virile Esau.
He went to his father’s bed. Outside, the reeds gave way to the wind, and gave the wind away. «It’s me», Jacob said. «Esau. I am ready for your blessing».
Isaac gave Jacob his blessing.
But Isaac wasn’t fooled. He wasn’t even blind. He had absolutely no difficulty distinguishing between his sons, his greatest joys, and even a blind father can see his children. He gave Jacob a father’s ultimate blessing, which is not the birthright, but his surrender. It was for the same reason that, only hours later, and in perfect health, he died.
Jacob fell in love with Rachel and wanted to marry her. «Sure», Rachel’s father said, «but first you’ve got to work for me for seven years». So Jacob did it. Seven years later, when he lifted his bride’s veil at the marriage ceremony, he found that Rachel’s father had pulled a fast one, marrying off one of his other daughters, Leah.
«I wanted Rachel», Jacob told Rachel’s father.
«Seven more years», Rachel’s father said.
So Jacob did it.
Seven years later, when he lifted his bride’s veil at the marriage ceremony, he found that he had been hoodwinked again. This time, he acquired Rachel’s younger sister.
«I wanted Rachel», Jacob said.
«Seven more years», Rachel’s father said.
So Jacob did it.
Seven years later, the face beneath the veil belonged to Rachel’s cousin. She wasn’t unattractive, or weak, or ignorant. Jacob had known her as a child, and then again, years later, by a well. They talked for hours that afternoon, about how, despite how much life was behind them, they felt young, and how, despite how much life was ahead of them, they felt old.
«I wanted Rachel».
Seven years later, he married Rachel’s second-cousin.
«I wanted Rachel».
«Seven more years».
He worked for Rachel’s father for sixty-three years before he lifted the veil to see the face of Rachel. She had aged, from a girl into an old woman. Her eyes had hidden themselves in her face, her gray hair hid her ears, deep creases tried to hide her mouth in their folds. In her old face, Jacob saw his own mortality, and that was another reason to love her.
That night, when they were alone in their bed, Jacob asked Rachel to cover her face with the veil. She did, and he removed it again, revealing her face. He asked her to do it again, and she did. And he revealed her face again. He moved the veil over hear breasts and then revealed them. He revealed her shoulders and her belly. He revealed her ankles, and her knees, her thighs, and how beautiful, he thought, moving up, that there was already a veil of hair. He revealed her mouth before veiling it again, this time with his own mouth.
They conducted their life together by the principle of the lifted veil, struggling always to reveal each other. Apropos of nothing, Jacob would walk out the front door, and then call to Rachel from the yard, «I love you and I’m coming home!» In the middle of a conversation, Rachel would exclaim, «Oh, it’s you! I’m so glad it’s you!»
And when, years later, Jacob lost his memory, Rachel did, too. They spent all day on the sofa together, flipping through the photo albums of their lives. They couldn’t remember their friends, or their family, or the violet dress Rachel used to love to dance in, or the tree-lined path to the sea, but those people and belongings and places continued to overwhelm them with happiness, as a dead sun would continue to heat the earth for eight miraculous minutes.
Jacob had bought a vase for Rachel. Or she had bought it for him. They couldn’t remember. It didn’t matter. It was there. And while they kept meaning to fill it with flowers, it always stood empty. «What an absolutely beautiful vase», they would say to each other, delighting in it newly, endlessly. They spent their days noticing things about it that they had noticed only a moment before, touching it hesitantly, tenderly, as if for the first time. «It really is amazing», they would say, always meaning it more. «What did we ever do to deserve such a beautiful thing?»
«Let my people go», Moses told Pharaoh again, after having inflicted upon his people yet another horrible plague. «I will not let your people go», Pharaoh responded, on behalf of his people. This time, God delivered the plague of blindness upon the Egyptians. They walked through the streets - mothers of children, their children, grandfathers - their arms in front of them, crying, «Darkness! Darkness!» And so the plague became known as darkness.
Each Passover, when we retell the story of the plagues, we dip our fingers in the wine, and then tap our plates, transferring a portion of the sweetness in memory of all of those throughout history against whom we have inflicted great suffering in exchange for our safety. «We are safe! We are safe!» we tell ourselves, and each other. And so the plague has become known as our safety.
IMITATION OF CHRIST
What you are looking into is the mirror that Jesus looked into the morning of his crucifixion. If it were a wall before you, the wall that Jesus looked at before he was led to his death, you would think little of it. If it were a thorn from his crown, or the nails that held him there, by his palms, or his image on a shroud, or even the remains of Jesus, himself, it would not affect you as looking into this mirror now does.
What is it, then, that you think you see?
© Jonathan Safran-Foer, 2005