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The Archivist

The Archivist

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Published by Richard Ostrofsky

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Published by: Richard Ostrofsky on Dec 05, 2010
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12/05/2010

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The Archivist
from Richard Ostrofskyof Second Thoughts Bookstore (now closed)www.secthoughts.comquill@travel-net.comSeptember, 2010
 
I've just finished reading, and would like to recommend
The Archivist 
, byMartha Cooley. In structure, it is the story of a relationship comprised of little more than conversation. The first interlocutor, the archivist of thenovel's title, is an elderly librarian responsible for his university'scollection of letters by T.S. Eliot to an American drama teacher anddirector named Emily Hale, who for 26 years had been a very close, buttrans-Atlantic, friend. The second is a female, thirty-something graduatestudent and aspiring poet who wants to read those letters, not for anyacademic purpose, but for their relevance to identity issues in her own life.The problem is that under the terms of Hale's bequest, the letters are in anarchive under lock and key, not available for access until 2020.In fact, Emily Hale was a real person, and Eliot's letters to her reallyexist – in a closed archive at Princeton, just as in the novel. But the intenseverbal struggle between Mattias, the archivist responsible for keeping theletters sealed, and Roberta, the graduate student, is fiction. Their dialogueand relationship is haunted by the history of T.S. Eliot's religiousconversion, his very great poetry, his anti-semitism and his atrociousdealings with women. Behind all that, it is haunted by the real history of the Second World War and the Holocaust. Also in play are the lifehistories of the novel's two protagonists: that of Mattias' failed marriagewhich parallels Eliot's own tragic and destructive marriage; and that of Roberta, a woman brought up Christian who has discovered that her  parents are actually converted Jews who had evaded Hitler's camps, butthen remained Christian and kept their Jewish heritage a secret from their daughter.You can find reviews of Ms. Cooly's book, both hostile and favorable,on the Internet; but this is not another. Personally, I think it is a fine pieceof work, very well conceived, well written and well worth reading. Rather,I want to record some thoughts about just one of its central issues: how theworld looks through Christian, Jewish and secular eyes, based on my owngrasp of this book's interpretations.In Cooley's account, both Judaism and Christianity offer similar theories of evil, but very different responses to it. Her book's Christiancharacters criticize the seriously Jewish ones for their morbid
 
 preoccupation with the past, and their compulsion to redeem or repair it.The Jewish concept of 
'tikkun' 
– the repair of a morally shattered world – is meaningless for them, as Christ has already accomplished the neededrestoration of grace and moral unity. What is needed is not Man's witnessand personal atonement for past sin and evil, but faith in the efficacy of Christ's sacrifice and adherence to the moral order instituted thereby.The Jewish characters, of course, do not recognize Jesus as thesacrificial goat of the ancient Yom Kippur service, abrogated in any case by the destruction of the Temple, and irrelevant to modern Jewry. For them, the task is not faith and adherence, but witness and personalrighteousness – to be worthy of a Messiah who may someday come, andwill in any case be a political and cultural leader, not an efficacioussacrifice. The serious Jews and Christians of the novel agree, however, inseeing its secularists as moral light-weights, who fail to face and grapplewith a problem of evil that seems so real for them. For them – as for T.S.Eliot himself – the moral frivolity of the modern world is its central failingand problem.There is no serious spokesperson in Cooley's novel to defend thesecularist position from such an accusation, but I don't see this as ashortcoming as the inclusion of such a character would have distractedfrom the drama and fraught context of the book's central dialogue. But itsurely begs a response from a secularist like myself, who is concernedwith the spiritual implications of unbelief, not just with its reasonedgrounds. For me, the God of Jews and Christians alike is as intellectuallydead as Nietzsche clearly saw; and I have written elsewhere why I think this is so. But, as Nietzsche also saw, that death leaves a spiritual vacuumthat is not easily filled; and it is entirely understandable that so many people are clinging desperately to moribund belief systems rather thanface the void they find around them once the old faiths are swept away.It should be faced squarely that the spiritual world of modern Man isessentially a
comic
one – not in the sense of being humorous, but in thetechnically accurate sense of focusing on the lives of ordinary, unheroic people – though perhaps forced, sometimes, to become a
little
heroic – justtrying to survive and thrive as best they can. By contrast, the world of Cooley's main characters, whether Jewish or Christian, like that of T.S.Eliot himself, is a world of individuals living up to some image of heroism – often more concerned with their heroic stature than with living sanely, or wisely or even decently.The comic stance deserves more respect than it often receives. For onething, it can recognize ironies. It is full of gray tones and shifting,ambiguous tones – not absolutes of black and white. It remains mindful of human limitations. It avoids and can ridicule a great deal of cruelty andfolly, precisely because it thinks and lives on a merely human level.To my mind, this is not a weakness, but a moral strength. There is,

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