So why are we on the internet, anyway?
Everyone knows that the Internet has been at best a mixed blessing. It is hard to imagine that any of the benefits it has brought could make up for the damage it has caused by placing so many temptations one click away in the absence of social controls. The weakening of community, the destruction of families, of marriages, of lives, of souls, is too much to be reckoned. If as the Talmud says the saving or destruction of a single human life is equivalent to the saving or destruction of a world, then the Internet has destroyed the world countless times over. It’s a kind of deluge.
And yet here we are talking about it on the Internet – because we have no choice. The Internet is now the only game in this so-called global village. Just yesterday I got an email from one of the few remaining independent bookstores in Jerusalem. It’s closing. To be anywhere these days you have to be on the Internet.
That is the practical reason. But as we all know, for everything there has to be another reason – some reason why HaShem wants us to go through this. So can we make a guess as to what that might be? I think of a Hasidic anecdote I read somewhere long ago, where the Hasid asks the rebbe about the meaning of various modern inventions. The answer for the telephone was “It teaches us that whatever is said here is heard there.”
Well, a lot of people have said that the Internet stands for the fact that we are all interconnected. There is even a book called The Talmud and the Internet, by Jonathan Rosen, that sees in the hyperlinks of the Internet something analogous to the cross-references of the Talmud. It’s a nice thought; the trouble is that on the Internet people seem to connect mostly on a very shallow level. The “global village” isn’t anything like a real village, where people know each other from first to last and share commitment to some social values. Relationships on the Internet are easy come, easy go, and anything goes. So the question remains: what is this for?
Certain experiences have led me to contemplate this question from a slightly different angle. I’m not a computer expert; I can use Word and send emails and post things to a website, and that’s about it. But computers have touched my life at odd points, and the dots connect for me into a sort of picture that might help us to relate to the Internet constructively.
It was in 1966, I think, that a math graduate student I had a slight crush on told in my hearing the following joke:
“They hooked up all the computers in the world into one giant computer and held an inauguration ceremony. After cutting the ribbon they thought they should ask it a really big question. So they asked, ‘Is there a G-d?’ The answer came back: ‘There is now.’”
That same year, I was persuaded to sign up for a computer dating program – a rather humbling experience, at the time; it involved admitting failure at the dating game. It wasn’t via the Internet, of course; I filled out a fairly detailed questionnaire and sent it in by mail, and received by mail the names of three men, one of whom came as close as anyone has to being my life partner, while another became a friend I kept in touch with for a while. The computer match worked better for me than the dating game. (Of course a shadchan might have worked better still…)
The following year, I started reading Paul Celan, who had a tremendous influence on my life. and in 1969 I met him in person. He was a non-frum survivor of the Shoah, but there is a Hasidic reshimu in his work that eventually drew me toward Judaism. At that interview he uttered, out of the blue, the sentence, “Every poem is the anti-computer, even the one the computer writes.” Then he repeated it. I understood I was supposed to write it down, and did so. I was supposed to be writing a dissertation about him and eventually did so, though only after freaking out and leaving the academic world. I called the dissertation “Anticomputer,” and in the first draft that sentence was one of its three mottos. The other two were that joke I’d heard from the math student and the Beatles’ line “When all the broken-hearted people living in the world agree, there will be an answer.”
What was it in Celan’s work that connected for me with the as-yet-nonexistent Internet? Well, in his work there is a kind of associational network, so that although on the surface it consists of separate lyric poems, all these poems can be connected. Not only that, but his work is full of echoes of other poets and writers with whom he seems to have communicated on a deep level, so that you have the feeling of connecting not only with him but with all these other speakers scattered through time and space.
Just after finishing the dissertation I was invited, out of the blue, to teach a summer course on the Modern Novel. I had read a lot of novels but hadn’t thought about the form much, so I didn’t have any theories or generalizations about this huge and hugely diverse set of literary works. So I had the inspiration of selecting one novel as central and then picking others that would go with it, sort of. The novel I selected as central was one a lot of people haven’t heard of – The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. I chose it because Celan had told me that he had come to Paris because of this book. Then I chose the rest of the books on the syllabus, intuitively, for their compatibility with this one. I figured that in the discussion connections would show up, and they did. One student told me, three weeks into the course, that she felt as if we kept reading the same book. The stories turned out to be variations on a common plot. One thing that kept cropping up was textile imagery. After giving the course – and a second course which I’ll talk about below — I felt impelled to write down the insights it had given me, and the result was a book called The Web of What Is Written – WWW for short. The year was 1974.
Relations of Writer, Reader and Community
As said, the books discussed had a common plot, whose subject I summarized in the subtitle “Relations of Writer, Reader and Community.” The plot was generally a tragic one, wherein the writer takes from the world of the Creator to make his own world, which becomes a monument to his ego. The characters are imprisoned in this world; they have no access to the author’s wisdom, and so their lives generally turn out badly. The reader may see something of herself in the work, but also cannot communicate with the author, who hides behind the work. And authors do not communicate with each other or acknowledge the links between them. An important input to The Web of What Is Written was The Anxiety of Influence, by Harold Bloom, whose thesis is that the “strong” writer “distorts the work of his predecessors so as to clear imaginative space for himself” and also avoids understanding his contemporaries from a similar motive.
In other words, Western literature is a little like what I gather some mekubalim (I am no more a kabbalist than a computer expert, so I say this with sfear and trembling) call the “world of tohu,” in which all the sefirot were very strong, but were not connected in any overall structure; the motto of each was “I will rule and no other.” So the whole thing fell apart (similar to the decline that takes place in recent Western literature).
As this picture became clear to me over the summer, I also kept thinking of various works I’d read which suggested a path of tikkun for this, and in the fall I gave a university extension course based on these works. One of the chapters was devoted to Hasidic stories; I’d have put in Pirkei Avot if I’d known Pirkei Avot at that time. Basically, what this second course suggested was a kind of collective poiesis, in which the speakers would all be aware that we are all characters in the same novel, that we are speaking from the same landscape, which it is our task to illuminate together. As Robert Zimmerman once put it, “I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours.”
The WWW (you can find it now on Amazon) has a second subtitle: “A Metanovel.” As far as I knew in 1974, I had invented that word (it seems other literary scholars also use it, but in a different sense). What I meant by it was that all the books under discussion were part of one overarching novel which also included the life-stories of the authors and of the readers – in short, the Creation. The Web of What Is Written is the title, in other words, of something that reaches far beyond the manuscript I finally published, after four revisions, in 2016. I’d had a flash, back in 1968, while standing on a street corner in Berkeley talking with two women friends, one Jewish and one Greek, that we are all in this huge novel, wider than Tolstoy, deeper than Dostoevsky, called The World. This consciousness, I think, is already part of the tikkun for the problem I’d identified in Western literature, the problem of the writer as isolated creator. This problem may even be related to the sin of Adam and Eve, who, according to Rashi, succumbed to the illusion that they were going to be like G-d, “creators of worlds.”
I was writing this, originally, as a Gentile only just becoming conscious of Judaism. But in the revival of literature in a Jewish, even frum milieu, the problematics of Western literature are inevitably imported. It is not just a matter of content, of tsniut, lashon hora, hashkafa. It is a matter of structure – of the relations among writers, between writers and readers – and there is also the role of the editor, which is a topic in itself. All these things have to be rethought, if there is to be a new literature in the spirit of Torah.
If we see this necessity, then we can again approach the computers, the Internet, as a helpful metaphor. One “virtue” of computers is that they share information readily, and can be hooked up to a network. One could compare computers to the angels, which have no free will, no will separate from that of the Creator. In the first blessings of the Shm’a there is a passage I never read (when I have any kavanna at all) without thinking wistfully of my fellow-poets:
They all take upon themselves the yoke of Heavenly kingship, one from the other, and with love grant permission to each other to sanctify their Maker with joyous spirit, with pure speech and sacred melody…
If poets could learn from computers that kind of transparency to one another…
I can think of one precedent. The greatest of Western poets, Dante Alighieri, belonged in his youth to a group of poets called the Fedeli d’Amore, whose history is obscure, but it seems they may have been writing out of some common mystical vision. The collection Rime, ascribed to Dante, is actually a conversation among several poets apparently belonging to this group. Dante went on to write the greatest single work of Western poetry, the Divine Comedy. Yet in this early conversation, perhaps there was potential for something greater still.
For this mutual transparency to be established, writers would need to commit themselves to being readers of one another. Defining oneself as a reader is really a corollary, for the writer, of the rule “Veahavta lere’ekha kamokha.”
Becoming a reader is for a writer – again I revert to this – a humbling experience. The reader seemingly creates nothing; like the Sefirah of Malkhut, she has nothing of her own. The reader’s name is not on the work. And yet it is the reader who must, in the end, give meaning to the work. The computer-written poem – going back to that sentence of Celan’s – is the extreme example; the computer means nothing by it, and any meaning is supplied by the reader. In the Western tradition writers have often distanced themselves from readers, claiming that their statements are just “works of art” and seldom entering into dialogue with those affected by them (with some honorable exceptions, such as Rilke). But suppose it were made a rule, or at least an expectation, that anyone whose work becomes widely distributed should employ a secretary who has understood the work and can respond to readers?
For serious literature – certainly for poetry – readers are now in shorter supply than writers. The result is that writers, especially poets, find themselves competing for the attention not of the reader, but of the editor, who is quite a different animal. The reader is receptive; the editor sits in judgment. Nothing so clouds perception as the need to judge; the fatal question “Is it good?” makes it difficult to see what is there. Even if all editors were aware of this pitfall and reminded themselves constantly to be readers first (again, a humbling experience), the constraint of the role would exert a deadening influence.
The question next arises how the intent of writers becoming readers of one another is to be realized. Obviously no one can read everyone. How do we decide whom to read?
Here again computers might help us. I recur to that experience of computer dating. Computers might similarly help us find our affines for the purposes of intellectual and literary exchange. And once again, this is a humbling admission. I read once that a computer program was better able than the farmers, with all their experience and intuition, to determine the best time to plant potatoes. Computers can also analyze characteristics of style and determine whether a given text was written by a given individual or not. Our human judgments and choices — about potatoes and much more importantly about one another — are influenced by factors that have nothing to do with intrinsic qualities. One might say that computers (again, like the angels, represent the attribute of judgment.
It would be very interesting to see a collaboration between poets and computer experts to devise a program for predicting intellectual synergy and sorting writers into affinity groups. These groups could be connected in a pyramid structure similar to that proposed by Yitro to Moshe: each group of ten writers would select a delegate to the next higher tier and would also select works from the group to recommend to the next wider circle. Also, everything produced by the members of the groups could be archived and hyperlinked so as to be retrievable in contexts where it may be relevant. At the top of the pyramid, perhaps something greater than the Divine Comedy would appear. It would be the work of a collective, but a collective in which individualities would not have been subsumed and effaced, but linked into a larger composition.
Poetry: a casualty of the technological revolution
All of this assumes that poetry, in the traditional sense, would continue to be practiced. Poetry has been rather a casualty of the technological revolution, beginning with the invention of writing and accelerating with each new level of sophistication in media of recording and communication. Everyone knows that attention span, concentration and memory – the faculties on which poetry depends – have nosedived in recent decades. The level of craftsmanship in poetry has declined correspondingly. We do not “need” these abilities any more, and consequently do not exercise them. However, it is recognized that despite the fact that machines have made much physical exercise “unnecessary,” it is still desirable to exercise our muscles. Similarly we need to exercise our minds in poetry, lest we lose them altogether. A guild of poets could work on getting this point across.
It is surely significant that poetry (like real art and music, but these play less directly into the social discourse) has so far eluded the Artificial Intelligence experts. The computer is capable of calculations that dwarf human calculation astronomically; it has beaten the world masters at chess and Go. But poetry is still well beyond the computer’s range. Computers can produce verbal strings that can be mistaken for modern “poetry,” because some modern poetry has taken leave of human sense; but they cannot write even the kind of doggerel that used to be printed in the papers, let alone anything comparable to the work of poets worth naming. Anyone interested in maintaining the distinction between a human and a robot would do well to read his or her Wordsworth nightly and try to produce a sonnet now and then (the sonnet is, despite its reputation, really quite an easy form to write; at certain times it was something every intellectual could manage on occasion).
I imagine my suggestions sound a bit fantastic. If someone out there has a talent for writing fiction (which I haven’t), they might try to turn them into a fantasy novel. But let me mention again that all of these ideas germinated in the encounter with a writer who was a survivor of the Shoah and whose work expresses, as one reader put it to me recently, “infinite pain.” The pain was about the Shoah, but it was also about the loss of humanity in other ways, including the computer. His poetry perceives a general threat to the tselem elokim and groups toward a creative response to it. It seems to me that being in touch with that pain should make us willing to try anything. It is, as noted, a kind of deluge, and we need to build an ark.
Appended are the poems I have written about the Internet over the years. May they deepen in the reader the sense both of threat and of possibility.
Please check back, we are publishing more of Esther’s poems about the internet over the coming weeks.