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A question I carried around but never quite asked as an adult: If the Kabbalah is so great, why does it sound so dull when explained or in translation?
A question I carried around but didn't know how to ask in childhood: If sex is so great, why do my parents and most of the adults I know keep it secret? (This might not apply as aptly to children today, who find easy access in the popular culture. Still, the lack of meaningful interpretation continues to beg the question: Why is it so great?)
In my adolescence I became infatuated with poetry, which I hoped would help me win the love of the most intellectual as well as sexy young woman I had ever encountered (we'll leave my mother out of this). She was so much better read than I was that I intended to forestall the revelation of my inferiority by forcing her to read my own cryptic sonnets in place of discussing Shakespeare's. I had at least understood that a paradoxical text would invite more interest or discussion than a clumsy imitation.
So I became a sonneteer of the obscure. I also became a grand failure, which probably ensured that I would continue on the poet's path until I could properly respect my own intelligence. I could not get the girl to speak of my poems at all, and when I finally cornered her, she explained that she would have told me this sooner except she had worried that it would discourage me from writing: she had begun dating the high school's star fullback and beefcake. Once again, lack of a proper understanding of sex had stymied me.
But I was determined to learn it from the primary source available to me in the tenth grade of that puritanical day, namely, my own sexualdreams. My method was to wake up secretly after midnight and attempt to capture those dreams on paper. I found that the dreams were scarier than I thought they would be, and although there was plenty of sex, I could not tell what was happening, as in my sonnets. At this point, I began to read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the novel by James Joyce, in my tenth-grade English class, and the revelations began. First, Joyce made all of reality sound like a dream, too. Second, the vision of hell that young Stephen Daedalus encountered sounded similar to my own dream writings.
I began to try to verify my intuition that all of great literature was written as if a dream. I read Artur Rimbaud's A Season in Hell, and then the newest books of poetry — Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Robert Lowell's Life Studies — all of them sounding like fever dreams in which the soul crossed over from the real world into a mirroring world of hell. The same seemed true of the great painter of the day, Jackson Pollock, whose feverish trails of dripping paint seemed to testify to the soul's precarious separation from the body. By this time I was aware of a danger in dreaming — and I was able to connect it to a childhood sense of the danger in words themselves. The word camp, for instance.
As a child, I learned that my aunts, uncles, and cousins smiling in the family photo album had "died in the camps," and worse: they were made into soap. Yet I was sent to a camp every summer. My body went to Camp Fresh Air, but my soul could be in danger of going to another camp. My guide through this time proved to be useful again as an adult: the famous Psalm 23, recited at camp and in countless graveside scenes in westerns and war movies. The Lord is my shepherd and I am a sheep. I can follow him anywhere and fear no evil, because my soul will keep walking after death. As if in a dream, my soul will find a table waiting with a full cup, a table set for a person instead of a sheep. Even though this seemed to be a bright ending, the key to the poem for me was that it set the model that dreams were about dying and the fear of being lost or eaten (either fate associated with sheep). But where was the sex? "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures . . . thy rod and thy staff they comfort me . . . thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over." Sex was in the body, male or female, which fears and is released from fear by ejaculation.
Does that sound wild, or even blasphemous? We are approaching the method of the Kabbalah. It can only be done if we own up to our dreams, because that is where we learn that the soul has a life of its own, but that it cannot be separated from sex. Nothing less than a major intellectual (and literary) landmark of this century, Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, bears this out. In place of the soul, Freud posits our interior life or "unconscious," and, like the soul itself, the unconscious is prey to fears of dying and of unconsummated sex. Why should the soul fear death? Separation anxiety is the scientific term, but in the Kabbalah it is represented as an uncertain journey, out of the body, that the soul takes every night while we dream. On its ascent, our soul is in danger of being distracted by the "other side," a world of evil that reproduces itself by devouring the human semen that is spilled in the wrong frame of mind (and impregnating the female with this "other" seed, if she is desirous in the wrong frame of mind as well). For both sex and dying, the soul must depend on our having achieved the right frame of mind — and that is what the great intellectual work and literary art of the Kabbalah depends on. Is that not what all great literature is built upon — expressing a satisfying attitude toward those forces beyond our control, namely death and desire? And a fascination with our failure to reach such satisfaction — in other words, a description of hell.