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Saturday, February 27, 2010

"To put it crudely, if Christianity is a fantasy religion, then Judaism is a science fiction religion"

This actually might explain a lot about my own discomfort with epic fantasy.

Posted by benrosen at February 27, 2010 03:02 PM | Up to blog

This is fascinating to me in several ways. Thank you for pointing me to it.

Posted by: Karen at February 27, 2010 05:00 PM

Abigail Nussbaum has some things to say about it here (I believe you're mentioned in the comments as a counter-example, which makes me wonder if everyone is talking slightly at cross-purposes due to differing definitions of things).

Posted by: Karen at February 27, 2010 07:17 PM

There's some discussion of the essay here.

Posted by: Ted at February 27, 2010 07:19 PM


Posted by: Ted at February 27, 2010 07:19 PM

Gotta say, though, as a gritty postmodern "fuck you" to the high-fantasy Absolute,

Raba said in the name of R. Yochanan: The Holy One will make a feast for the righteous out of the flesh of Leviathan, and what is left will be portioned out and made available as merchandise in the marketplaces of Jerusalem.

is pretty badass. There's definitely some potential there.

Posted by: David Moles at February 27, 2010 09:44 PM

It's very Mieville, really.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at February 27, 2010 09:57 PM

I would be more specific about the Tolkien-Christianity-fantasy link up. Tolkien's fantasy world is derived from that of Wagner's Ring of the Niebelungen, a Nordic mythological / Christian / racially tinged allegory. I think that is true generally of the kind of fantasy Weingrad is talking about - it all arises from the Wagner revival of dwarves, gold hoardes, etc. Wagner was way more sexual than his British 20th century successors, of course, but that's opera for you.

Posted by: Ak Mike at February 28, 2010 10:13 PM

When the comments on an essay (such as those at Farah Mendlesohn's LJ) seem to be based on a very different reading of the essay than I experienced, I tend to wonder if I get the original essay right. The observation seemed to me to be that Jewish fantasy writing tended to take supernatural elements into a natural setting, rather than creating a Narnia or Middle-Earth (or Majipoor, which is the major problem with the essay from my standpoint). All the comments about the golem and such seem very very wide of the point. Unless, as is likely, I am missing the point.

Anyway. My real point is very few 20th- or 21st-century English-writing Jews would have read Genesis Rabbah, or Fourth Ezra or Second Baruch or the other things that are 'part of our tradition' and could be drawn on for High Fantasy. So it's not surprising that there are few works drawing on them.

No, I tell a lie. My real point is that the mention of Raba seems to allow me to retell the great story of how he invited Rabbi Zeira to celebrate Purim with him, and then whilst drunk Raba stabbed Rabbi Zeira to death and had to resurrect him. And the next year, Raba invited him back for Purim and Rabbi Zeira declined, saying that he didn't really like the way Raba observed the holiday.

Happy Purim!

Posted by: Vardibidian at February 28, 2010 11:12 PM

Chag sameach, Vardibidian!

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at March 1, 2010 09:47 AM

More Morgan (or Zelazny) than MiƩville, I think. MiƩville may be Tolkien's bitterest political enemy but his worlds still draw much of their power from the ineffable absolute (whether it's the Lovecraftian abyss or the promise of the revolution) rather than from the collision of transcendence with mundanity.

Posted by: David Moles at March 1, 2010 08:46 PM

That's an excellent point, Mr. Moles, which goes as well for Pullman. I think my takeaway from the "Jewish Narnia" article is precisely that -- in Clute/Mendelssohn terms -- "portal/quest fantasy" is a fundamentally Christian and anti-Christian project. Which is why the voluminous protests that Jews write lots of other kinds of fantasy, in the other threads, seems to be beside the point.

There are certainly exceptions -- Kay, Kushner, Gaiman -- but they are often done either (eg Kushner) with the explicitly programmatic intention to solve precisely this problem of writing a Jewish Narnia, or (eg Gaiman) are draw almost exclusively from the Pagan/Christian/anti-Christian worldview. In a sense Gaiman's portal/quest fantasies are de facto Pagan-Christian the way Pratchett's immersion fantasies are de facto Jewish, regardless of the author's ethnicities -- and I don't think that, in saying this, I've quite arrived in tautology territory yet, even though I'm aware I'm blurring the "Kindred" and "Parallax" aspects of the debate...!

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at March 2, 2010 08:15 AM

The story of the imminent coming of the Messiah, or his non-Jewish equivalent (e.g., Mithra) was prominent across the Middle East from 150 years before Jesus to the destruction of the second temple.

The whole story of the Messiah's coming, culminating with the battle between Good and Evil, the victory of Good, and the raising of the dead, fits in perfectly with the kind of epic fantasy in Tolkein and the others discussed here.

Posted by: DMR at March 4, 2010 09:06 PM

Well, that's certainly true, but Weingrad's makes the point, correctly, I think, that in the divergence of the Christian and Rabbinic Jewish traditions, the dualist "battle between Good and Evil" part tended to be played up in Christianity while it faded in Rabbinic Judaism.

Yearning for the Messiah if anything got more important between Talmudic and medieval times -- but it's hard to find much universalized Forces of Evil. There's no hugely powerful Dark Lord against whom the (relatively weak) forces of Good must battle, none of Lewis's sense that the Earth is hostile occupied territory where the Devil reigns supreme.

Instead there was the sense of the world as broken, as corrupt, as fallen. It was a place, certainly, where evil abounded -- but not Evil. There was no lack of suffering to motivate the yearning for a Redeemer. But there was only one Lord, from whom both dark and light came. The climax of the Jewish story is when God decides to send the Messiah -- not any battle that the Messiah would thereafter fight against an Adversary, none of the dualist book-of-revelations epic fantasy struggle which obsessed Christians.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at March 5, 2010 05:28 AM
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