Like a Virgin – Limmud Oz for the Very First Time
“They want you to give a talk at something called Limmud-Oz”, said my publisher, a woman of enormous capability and an undistilled admiration for the organising capacity of the late Mr Ceausescu. “They are of your people and it can be a good chance to talk about the forthcoming book, which needs PR. That’s what Marketing thinks and you know how we need to keep them happy”.
My People? How does she know that I am a double Cohen? “Limited Aus? What’s that, Julia Gillard’s election mandate?” I whined, “Can’t I just send a video?”
“Don’t be silly”, she responded. “If you don’t wan’t to mix with the public, then go back to writing books about the Middle Stone Age in Gondwanaland, and see how far that gets you.”
Feeling, as usual, like a mere inkblot in the great printing press of life, I walked off to prepare for my fate. The invitation, it appeared, had arisen in response to my first book, a tasty little tome about my day job colleagues who turned their hand to murder (as opposed to the licenced butchery that they engaged in their daily working lives). To my surprise, the book was a modest success for a first-off author of no great skill, even worse reputation and an ingrained ability to split infinitives way beyond anything ever envisaged by Einstein for the atom. It was then picked up by no less than the French and the Brazilians. I had always been keen on the beach culture of the Brazilian folk and I was prepared to forgive the French their longstanding calumny from the time of Dreyfus for this act of kindness. That it was to take at least 18 months to get the book even translated into French and Portuguese did not mitigate my pathetic gratitude.
Inspired by my first venture into authorship and dreaming, as all authors have ever done, of a chance to give up the day job, I then came up with an idea for a book called Medical Charismatics and Their Discontents. My plagiarism of the title from Karl Popper notwithstanding, it was to be a witty, smart and riveting account of the danger done by charismatic individuals who take to medicine, as opposed the pulpit or parliament, to mislead or mangle their hapless patients. It still is. Trust me on this.
I walked into the She Publisher’s office, known for some reason to many of her authors as the Torquemada Room, and waved the draft outline under her nose. She made a noise like a fish swallowing a baby frog, her hand cutting through the air like one of those Japanese Samurai swords. “Nah, I want the brain. We can’t sell enough books on the brain. Biggest thing in the book business now. You are to write a book on the brain.” Keen readers will note the change in conversational tone to that more usually employed by those in military command.
“The brain?, I whimpered in shock, “I know of the brain what a fish knows from riding a bicycle.”
“Silly boy. You’ve done crime, save it for another day; there is no shortage of criminals in your profession. A book on the brain you can easily manage. Look how Oliver Sacks and Norman Doidge do it, easy-peasy. Here is the contract. Sign it.”
In less than five minutes, with a glazed look in my eyes, I staggered out, some of the staff averting their gaze knowingly.
The next eight months are not a period in my life on which I wish to reflect. It was the sort of thing Kafka or Dostoyevsky could write about, but I prefer amnesia. It was an experience akin to the man who thoughtlessly pays for a bondage and domination session at a house of ill repute, realising once it commences that he is in above his head, but feeling he has no choice but to finish, as having laid out his money.
After three months of trying to explain to the reading public the intricacies of such activities like sleep, pain and thinking, I realised that I did not have the faintest interest in reading, let alone writing, such drek, and nor would any sensate or non-lobotomised human being. Like Marx inverting Hegel, I changed course dramatically. I settled instead for writing about notable characters from history, providing a little discourse on how changes in their brain had affected their success, failure, art or crime. I started with characters such as Leonardo and Vincent van Gogh, progressing to Woody Guthrie, Jack Ruby, Howard Hughes and Adolf Hitler. When I ran out, I threw in two nameless individuals, one from 78,000 years ago (a sneaky way of getting in something about the Middle Stone Age. Hah) and a San rock art painter from 1800. And as a coda, the prophet who wrote the Book of Ezekiel, otherwise known as The Man Ezekiel or TME.
The manuscript of the work I wishfully called Being Human and Other Such Follies was handed over to the She Publisher. She laughed heartily at the putative title, saying there was as much chance of Marketing accepting this as there was of the shul schnorrer making a donation to the Sydney Peace Prize. The usual fight then ensured over my writing style. All jokes mentioning Woody Allen, my old Uncle Chaim and the wit of the late Dr Verwoerd were promptly excised, as was my tendency to slip in bad Yiddish phrases when I couldn’t think of anything else. As a sole concession to stop me throwing myself out the window of the publishing house, I was allowed to keep one nebbish (for Jack Ruby, who else?).
The title, I learned with excitement was to be The Exceptional Brain and How It Changed History. Marketing, the She Publisher said, in a tone used by the current pontiff when discussing Opus Dei, was very pleased with their efforts. Just how I felt about Marketing was mostly indescribable and, in any event, anatomically impossible. No wonder so many writers are not just depressed but positively suicidal. That, if nothing else, would explain such cheery works as Wuthering Heights, The Bell Jar or anything by J M Coetzee.
It was on this note that I received the über-command to give the talk to publicise the book. “And don’t go on about those wretched criminals, James Joyce or that ghastly Stone Age stuff.”
“The book, give it a good go,” was added for good measure.
And, finally, “No bad jokes, I’m still dealing with the flak from your last public appearance on our behalf. If you keep going at your present rate it will result the first legal book burning since Munich 1934.”
With these instructions in mind, I submitted a list of topics to the Limmud Oz committee, foolishly including the topic Freud’s Jewish roots that I had given so many times I couldn’t stand to talk about it any more. The second topic, South African Jews and the Litvak Heritage I knew would invariably grate with an audience of mittel-Europa extraction, so the odds favoured the first topic or the last, on The Man Ezekiel. Needless to say, the committee chose Freud, I said he had done his dash, and it was TME or nothing. To my surprise, they immediately assented, which I can only assume they had mistaken him for Resnick, the mohel of Minsk, notorious for taking the concept of the filter tip to an extreme, rather than the distinguished biblical sage.
This left the problem of what to talk about. I had been interested in TME since I worked with the South African historian Charles van Onselen on the Jewish criminal Joseph Lis, a credible candidate for Jack the Ripper who was clearly influenced by TME’s work, if the systemic mutilation of his wretched victims is any guide. TME had described exactly the same fate for the whores Oholibah and Olibah. There was the historical Ezekiel, the theological Ezekiel, the literary Ezekiel, the priestly Ezekiel and so on. But what was going on inside the man’s head?
Actually, that proved the easy part. Ezekiel, once he got started, simply could not stop himself. Whether writing, preaching, prophesying, lamenting or threatening, he just went on and on – and then some. That he did this in some of the most beguiling prose and poetry of the Tanach is besides the point; he could, when least expected, switch over to the most brutal and extreme punishments (mostly to women), to say nothing of descriptions of sex that indicated the most alarming predilections. And he wrote, how he wrote; the Book of Ezekiel is the fourth-longest book in the Tanach, longer than Leviticus that by any reckoning, covered a much longer time in history, if not far more events.
This is not to say that rest of TME’s behaviour was conventional. He has ninety three visions, far more than Moses, he travels through time and space at ease, can slide through the walls of the besieged city of Jerusalem, lies on one side for 400 days, and is convinced that everyone is talking about him, if not plotting to get him.
TME had the Geschwind syndrome, a constellation of behaviours, mostly religious and creative, that resulted from temporal lobe epilepsy. To write a chapter on this at leisure is one thing; to talk to an audience well informed on the subject and ready to leap on any mistake, let alone suggestions of personal frailty, is entirely another matter.
When the day of the talk loomed, I was pleased to see that it was positively Noachic weather with winds blowing off the top of the Beaufort scale, rain streaming down and fears of mass evacuation. Things were looking up. I envisaged that the audience would consist of three: myself (who had no choice but to be there), my girlfriend Marita (who is devoted and loyal and does these things for me), and Boris the dachshund of no great intelligence, looking for somewhere to get out of the rain and have a nice sleep (Actually, Boris when not eating, spends most of his day looking for somewhere to sleep). The talk was booked for 5.45pm, certainly not a time for any sensible person to attend such an event.
I checked in at the Scientia Building, convincing the woman at the desk that I was not seeking the local outpatient clinic and learned that I had been given the smallest and most distant lecture room in the complex. This was expected and entirely consistent with my reputation. An audience of three, including the ever-somnolent Boris was now certain. I knew all would be well.
Like most of my prognostications, this could not have been more incorrect. I bumped into my friend Rachael Kohn, floating airily though the foyer, who breezily assured me that her session had been a piece of (Montreal) cheesecake. Thanks to the deluge, Marita was running late and I strolled into the room, expecting to hear only the echo of my voice off the empty walls. To my dismay, the first three rows were already full and more people came streaming in. None of them, I noted, looked as if they were fleeing the rain in search of warmth and sleep and more than a few were yarmulke-schleppers, men steeped in Talmudic argument, not a good omen for someone hoping to convince an audience that he was the only one who knew anything about the topic. By the time I started, there were over fifty present with the overflow, to my amazement, sitting in the aisles. I was beginning to wonder whether I had not been set up and this was a theological hit squad from the local Lubavitcher cell.
I had barely got into my swing when a keen-eyed beared young schlepper waved an excited hand, demanding to know how I could say that TME was the only priest who became a prophet. Was I not, he asked with his payot bouncing in unison, aware that Isaiah was also a priest. The implication was unmistakable. I could put forward my apostate and presumably ill-informed views, but I was in the presence of those who knew better and retribution was looming for any further slips.
“Actually, TME as I said was the only priest operating as a prophet outside the Holy Land. The keen look on the schlepper’s face faded. He glared at me and reluctantly sat down. With a gulp, I continued talking.
Before long, another hand waved, followed by another schlepper who asked how I could say that TME made heretical statements about his mission. “Are you seriously implying that a revered prophet could entertain such notions?”
“Ummm, I didn’t write the book, when a man talks about eating bread made from human dung or seeing a chariot drawn by four-faced beasts with beryl wheels, I think its unlikely to be listed in the Talmud.” He too sat down, but the glare directed at me did not bode well.
It was barely a minute later before the last character, an unshaven fellow who looks like an IT geek who had strayed into Talmud school bobbed up. “With your particular interpretation of the work, would you agree that you are putting forward the idea that TME’s concept of the Holy One was anthropomorphic?”
This question nearly floored me and I saw doom ahead unless I came up with something fast. In my desperation, the old lecturer’s trick came back to me. “I am many things, but not a specialist on theodicy. But I can see I am in good company to get an answer and would be happy to throw the question to the audience, many of whom seem knowledgeable in these matters.” I looked directly at my interlocutors. So did the rest of the audience. None of them, showed any inclination to take up the cudgels and starred down at the floor.
After a suitable pause, I announced with a broad smile that I intended to continue in the safer and more certain world of neuropsychiatry and epileptology.
And so I did. My interlocutors remained mute, even reproachful, but made no further intrusion. Two of the interlocutors were either sleeping or, from the psychoanalytic viewpoint, were expressing their feelings about my talk with passive-aggression. The talk proceeded without interruption. At the end, the questions were light, if not friendly and I received a good handful of applause, not just from Marita and the now-awake Boris who always likes to throw in the occasional yowl to join in the general zeitgeist.
TME, as I perceived the Man, had now been unveiled to the world and I had neither been burned at the stake nor reported to the Bnei Brith. That was one chapter down; only another fourteen left to explain. On Monday I intended to call the She Publisher and engage in a brief episode of authorial one-upmanship. We have so few of them. In the meantime, I seek a picture of TME to hang above my desk. The man is a positive inspiration.
Dr Robert M Kaplan actually has a day job; that is, until the authorities find out. His book, The Exceptional Brain and How It Changed History, is to be published by Allen and Unwin in September. He has been threatening to write his autobiography Memoirs of a Marginal Medical Student for years, but has been prevented from doing so by the intercession of his diminishing circle of friends, anxious to save him from further humiliation, if not disgrace. Why bother?