Chapter One: The Project
My field is the study of ancient texts. I have spent the better part of my life working on them, mostly texts from the Hebrew Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and other writings of the ancient Near East, but also Hebrew texts from the middle ages. One thing I have learned through my years of studying is that authors, although they are writing on some specific topic and for some definite purpose, often end up telling more than they set out to. Especially if a text is of any length or substance, it can open a window onto the inner world of the person who wrote it, revealing something crucial about how that person saw and understood things in general. Such information is often far more valuable than whatever it was the author had consciously set out to write about. The reason is that the author himself, and all the things he thought were obvious or took for granted, are by now long gone. The text is the only thing we have that will allow us to enter that lost world and, with some effort, restore its way of understanding, of seeing. The trick, of course, is to know how to allow a text to tell everything it knows about its author and his world.
This afternoon, I was in the library studying a poem written by a Hebrew poet of the middle ages. It is a poem about the soul, and reading it, I thought again of the Project. People in medieval times had such a vivid sense of their own souls! We often accuse ourselves nowadays of self-absorption, self-obsession, and there is more than a little truth to this. But in medieval times, even though the self in which they were absorbed was quite different, people were as aware as we are today, perhaps even more so, of what was going on deep inside themselves. They sometimes said that they felt their soul was "sick" and needed tender caring. They said they felt it, felt it, crying out in distress. Like a lovesick maiden (though, one might add, with the intensity of a dog chained to a stake), it was sobbing and moaning in its frantic desire to be reunited with its Creator. Some of this may have been literary convention, poetic boilerplate, but behind that must have been a certain reality in their world that has disappeared from our own. I thought of the dusty treatises I had once consulted, with their prescriptions for the soul's care and betterment, a diet of devotion and medicinal herbs, proper readings, and a path of penitence to bring the soul back to its native strength.
Outside the library, one comes to one's senses: the traffic, the brightly lit stores. But still, always lurking, is the Project. What is the Project? It is not mine in particular; many people have worked at it. Perhaps it began for me at the time of the Vietnam War, or perhaps even before that. Events conspire to put you on the spot, to cause you to make some fateful decision. And just then, facing life's ugly, jagged teeth, you suddenly feel a certain calm and a sense of the realness of things that isn't there most of the time, the realness of yourself as one distinct person, and certain ideas go through your head. A few years pass, perhaps. Then, on a day that you have set aside, sitting alone on a park bench above some municipal lake, you try to smooth things out in your mind, until the surface of the lake subtly starts to seem like an image of your mind, and once again you have a different sense of things. It is then that the Project can present itself most forcefully, reemerging from wherever it may have been waiting. The Project is: to get to the bottom of this, to see how far it goes; not to deceive oneself, not to be sentimental or weak, but to see how far one can go.
It can take you very far, even fill up a lifetime. Oddly, for me, it led eventually to (among other places) a most unlikely setting, the library. The reason is implied in what I have already said. I did not invent the idea of the soul, or of God, I was not the first to write about Him. Those who were, and those who followed them, lived long ago, and now all that remains of their world is those texts that they left behind. At first they seem so dry and dead, but if they are read in the right way -- with sympathy and imagination, no condescension, only a relentless desire to enter -- they can indeed come back to life, and their world, their way of seeing, can let us in to take the measure of things that are strange.
Copyright © 2003 by James Kugel