Thursday, February 15, 2007

Finally: My Name is Asher Lev

Well, seeing how it's already the middle of February, I hope all those who are participating in the book club have received their copy of My Name is Asher Lev. Also, I have decided on next month's book so you can go ahead and order it online and save a little $$$. My father-in-law (at least I think that's who it was--after having two kids, my memory is kind of shot) told me he was going to start reading Sidney Poitier's The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography and I thought that would be the perfect book for next month's book. Go here to find the best deal.

Now I am by no means a Chaim Potok expert, just an interested reader, so I'm afraid this month's book blogs will be far less informative than they were when guest blogger Bruce Young took on the C.S. Lewis discussion.
My Name is Asher Lev has been a very relaxing read for me. It's not what I'd call a page-turner, but I've loved reading it none-the-less. The imagery is so vivid (I would argue sometimes over-the-top), that you litterally see the world through new eyes along with Asher as he goes through the process of becoming an artist.
In my own life, through studdying music, I have developed new ears--I hear music and sounds in a way I was unable to before studying it. For example, when I hear someone sing, I no longer just hear a "pretty voice," I hear wobbles in vibrato, nasality, lousy interpretation, I hear when someone goes slightly off key--things I certainly didn't notice or care about prior to studying. So in a sense, my education brought new aspects of music to life for me while destroying others so that I can no longer just sit back and enjoy a piece of music (unless it's really good).
My question to you: Have you had to trade in your eyes for new ones as you've become educated? Are there problems with this--does Asher devote too much of himself to his art and to seeing detail? Do musicians focus too much on critique and not enough on pure enjoyment?

13 comments:

Bruce Young said...

The question of whether too much emphasis on critique, analysis, and technique can destroy enjoyment is a complicated one. Wordsworth wrote in a poem, "We murder to dissect" (meaning, I think, that analyzing things destroys them). But I think it's possible for analysis to increase enjoyment and understanding. There are lots of things--including some great works of music--I think I wouldn't enjoy nearly as much if I didn't know some background, including something about the technique, and hadn't spent some time pondering, analyzing, making connections, etc.

But maybe some kinds of analysis and critical-mindedness really do diminish the very things that would make anybody want to experience art, music, or literature.

By the way, if anyone wants to read a brief introduction to Potok and his writing, here's a link:
http://english.byu.edu/faculty/youngb/potok-intro.htm

older singer said...

I am incapable of reading a badly written book. I can't get through it. This means I don't have much appreciation for much of popular fiction. I am so hard on myself as a writer, and I apply the same standards to those I read. I don't think I'd change that. I don't need to be elitist in other areas of my life, but the joy I find from a really fine piece of literature must be comparable to the joy you find in a beautifully performed aria, Factotum. We are educated to excellence, and we're spoiled in many ways.

Bruce Young said...

Interestingly, though, intelligent people--or at least people who think they are intelligent or otherwise qualified--argue intensely about what constitutes good writing. For instance, Potok himself has his admirers and his detractors as a writer.

But I'm guessing that most of us have at least a rough idea of when we've bumped into either really good writing or really awful writing.

Factotum said...

I'm so glad you put that link in Bruce, I completely spaced it!

Bruce Young said...

Here's the link again: http://english.byu.edu/faculty/youngb/potok-intro.htm

Besides giving some interesting background, it will let you know what some of the critics think of Potok's writing.

older singer said...

Potok says _Asher Lev_ was received with great ambivilance by the Jewish community. One woman asked him, "But why would he do that to his mother?" Is there a danger in suggesting that an artist can go beyond common morals to achieve his artistic purposes? Or is it even more dangerous to box an artist in to cultural expectations and summarily reject anything he/she creates which doesn't quite fit the box?

ML said...

This was an interesting glimpse of Hasidic culture and beliefs. I was especially intrigued by "It is the nature of the Jewish soul to desire this union with the Being Without End, unlike the souls of the Gentiles, which are derived from the Other Side and which strive to remain independent beings and entities." I understand that we need to "become one" in our faith, but individuality is also recognized and part of our future also. It makes me wonder which of their great teachers divided the dichotomy and chose only one side.
I think the views of the child, Asher Lev, were colored by the adult, Chaim Potok. I realize he was a gifted, unusual child, and it made the book very interesting, but to me they were a little too unusually dark for a child under 8 years old, raised by loving parents.

older singer said...

What insightful comments, ML! You have such a wonderful mind. I'm glad I get to be connected to you.

Bruce Young said...

On this question of whether "artists" can go beyond common morals, I can't help thinking of some lines from The Magician's Nephew (C. S. Lewis, of course): Uncle Andrew says, ". . . you must understand that rules of that sort, however excellent they may be for little boys . . . and even people in general, can't possibly be expected to apply to profound students and great thinkers and sages. No, Digory. Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures. Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny." And later Jadis (who becomes the White Witch) echoes: "You must learn, child, that what would be wrong for you or for any of the common people is not wrong in a great Queen such as I. The weight of the world is on our shoulders. We must be freed from all rules. Ours is a high and lonely destiny."

Of course, what we have here is a pseudo-scientist and a dazzlingly beautiful queen, but I wonder if writers and artists might be tempted to think of themselves in something of the same way.

Anonymous said...

Kaila, are you going to post your ideas about My Name Is Asher Lev? I mean a longish post that might even be on the main Factotum page? I'd love to know your thoughts at greater length.

Factotum said...

I'm loving these comments! I've been meaning to post again on Aher Lev and for some reason this week has been unusually busy. I hope to have my post up some time tomorrow--then we'll start on _The Measure of a Man_ which I am really excited about.

Bruce Young said...

Looking forward to Kaila's next post on Asher Lev--but meanwhile a couple of more thoughts on "great artists" being beyond common morality.

First, beware of anyone who thinks he or she is a great artist. The truly greatest are sometimes humbler--or at least more realistic--than the second rate.

Second, why do "great artists" sometimes think they're beyond common morality. I was just thinking about that in the shower today and came up with three possible reasons: (1) Beauty is such a high value (and these artists are SO good at creating beauty) that, according to them, creating beauty is more important than being moral. (2) Truth is such a high value (and these artists believe they are conveying important truths) that some moral rules may need to get bent or broken in the process of conveying those truths. (The truths could be anything from "what jerks everybody in Vienna have been to me" to "this is how the human psyche works" to "this is the ultimate nature of the universe.") (3) There are indeed moral values, and they are the most important thing I can convey through my art. What many people now think of as "moral" is a very distorted or mediocre version of the higher morality I'm trying to help them see. My art can be a force for moral change and growth if people will let it. If not, my art will stand in judgment on them.

Of all these three I am least sympathetic with the first--I love beauty intensely, but I don't think it's more important than truth or goodness. I'm sympathetic with number 2, though I believe the truth should be spoken in love, and I'm very sympathetic with number 3. But I have a couple of reservations, one being that many artists who think they are conveying truth or a higher morality have a much higher opinion of themselves than they deserve, another being that even helping people come to greater truth or greater goodness needs to be done wisely, sensitively, and humbly lest it become an exercise in frustration or destruction. I believe a good portion of the evil in the world comes from people trying to cram truth and goodness down other people's throats.

older singer said...

Art always creates an invitation, but sometimes the invitation is also a CONFRONTATION. Sometimes artists create something violent or intentionally ugly simply to get a reaction from the audience. Whenever violence, sexuality, or vulgarity is gratuitous (and it's not always gratuitous), the art fails for me. I like art which invites me into the artist's mind and sensibilities, art which says, "Come and see." I am rarely willing to "come and see" ugliness which is plastered on the wall with the intent of shocking me, though I am willing to see a mirror which might reveal something I NEED to see for my own moral growth. I love art which gives me an experience rather than merely a reaction to the artist himself.