Page 55 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 48

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structed the dovecot, dies cursing the Russians. Babel’s keen
eye for detailed observation resembles Chagall’s, bu t the w riter’s
tragic vision contrasts with the pa in ter’s comic wings.
Yet for all o f Babel’s hard-core realism, his story contains
a warning about the na tu re o f illusions. Part o f the boy’s rite
o f passage is his coming to grips with Russia’s constitutional
coming o f age and the tragedies o f anti-Semitism that form
his personal identity. Like the “chosen” people, his prize, choice
pigeons come un d e r attack by a crippled peasant avenging his
own winglessness. Instead o f a b ird ’s-eye view, the boy suffers
a g rounded blindness, his eyes closed both to the realities and
illusions su rround ing him. “This trampled earth in no way re ­
sembled real life, waiting for exams in real life. Somewhere far
away Woe rode across it on a great steed.” Boundaries between
equestrian and avian, real life and illusion, ea rth and body blur
as hoofbeats fade in the distance. This surreal b lur continues
th roughou t the story’s longest parag raph that winds like the
pigeon-guts, for without any transition the na rra to r shifts sud­
denly from ground level: “I was walking along an unknown
street set on either side with white boxes, walking in a getup
o f bloodstained feathers.” Somnambulant, this painted bird ob­
serves wires that had grown white above his head, a song o f
flying wood, and inflamed old women flying in fron t o f a p ro ­
cession o f banners with graveyard saints swaying above their
heads. With their surreal eye on a Russian Diaspora, Babel and
Chagall spot birds o f destiny and bear talmudic testimony.
A slightly d iffe ren t twist to this ghetto cosmopolitanism, with
its po rtra it o f the Semite whose brow touches the heavens while
the rest o f him up to his neck remains mired in a cloaca, appears
in Walter Benjamin’s conception o f the angel o f history. Ben­
jam in begins his ninth thesis on the philosophy o f history with
an epigraph from Gershom Scholem’s poem:
My wing is ready fo r flight,
I would like to turn back.
I f I stayed timeless time,
I would have little luck.
Listening to angels o f destiny with their winged words, Jews
have been perched and poised for diasporic flight. I f Hegel