Page 165 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 43

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LOWIN / THE JEWISH ART OF JOSEPH HELLER
153
Tekoah, who tells him a parable about her two sons. The Jewish
response as conveyed by the wise woman is to spare the re­
maining child.
Uvaharta bahaim.7
David finally comes to the realization that he is not fit to be a
king. “How could I possibly have spared the life of a beloved child
when loyal soldiers had laid down their own lives to prevent him
from killing me? Yet how could I have taken it”
(GK,
p. 198). This
is tragedy with a Jewish edge, because it is a refusal to accept the
Greek concept of tragedy. The use of the parable of the wise
woman of Tekoah demonstrates palpably that Heller’s treatment
of tragedy is meant to be Jewish — and not at all Greek. What
does it mean to be a king? If we listen to Samuel, we realize that it
is not even Jewish to have one. In the Hellerian universe, it means
that one can no longer be a child.
The last few pages of the novel illuminate the meaning of Da­
vid’s dilemma and shed light on the problem faced by sons who
become fathers. In a beautiful fantasy, Abishag the Shunnamite
holds up a mirror before David. In it he sees himself as a youth, as
his own son. He loves that boy, but like Saul, he throws ajavelin at
him. Like Bob Slocum in
Something Happened,
he kills the son that
is himself. It appears that all fathers survive only at the cost of the
death of childhood, usually more beautiful and pleasant than the
present represented by old age. David loves himself as a boy and
would prefer to remain eternally a boy. Why be a father when
fathers throw javelins at their sons? It’s better to be a son.
It is obvious that
Good as Gold
and
God Knows
represent stages in
the development of Jewish themes and concerns in the art of Jo ­
seph Heller. As a novelist, he is coming to terms with his own Jew­
ish background and more importantly with the Jewish textual
tradition. On the basis of the evidence, one can predict that, like
the Jewish tailor, Heller will make much of his Jewish material.
He will do so in patterns of his own making, in novelistic forms
that are totally unexpected, experimental, original, and quite
possibly shocking. But then again, in literature, nothing succeeds
as the critics plan it.
7 “Therefore choose life.” It is significant that a
Jewish
reading of
Catch-22,
Hell­
er’s first novel, yields an insight into his reverence for the sanctity of human
life, which takes precedence over all other values. This Jewish value is a con­
stant of Heller’s
oeuvre.
See Daniel Walden. “Therefore Choose Life: AJewish
Interpretation of
Catch-22
,” in James Nagel, ed.,
Critical Essays on Catch-22.
Alburquerque: 1968, pp. 57-63.