Friday, July 26, 2002
Chaim Potok

When I read that Chaim Potok had passed away this past week, I noted that I couldn't place exactly who the gentleman was. Sure, the names of the published works resonated with distant parts of the memory, but I had a sense that there was something of his that I had connected with in a deeper sense at some point in my life.

I found the object of that connection while going through my collection of saved items that have once been on my bulletin board. Amidst a photocopy of Rocky and Bullwinkle figurines smushed against the copier glass, images of Zippy the Pinhead and of The Simpsons, of a piece by Mike Barnicle describing the future execution of an eight-year-old perp (Aside: Everyone with a lick of sense knew he made up the details of his stories. That was a lame excuse to run him out of the Globe), a Far Side "Boneless Chicken Ranch" card, and a photo of Georg von Békésy, I found a copy of a speech that Potok gave at the University of Pennsylvania in 1983 (as best I can figure from the honorary degrees on this list).

The printing of the speech -- I believe it was from The Boston Phoenix, although it could've been from The Real Paper (if The Real Paper was still being published at that time) -- was titled "Our Age of Permanent Apocalypse".

I'm not sure if that was Potok's title or not. My Google search for the term "Permanent Apocalypse" suggests that the term is from Susan Sontag. But while Potok's speech does have elements of what might be identified "relatavisim" (or even of postmodernism, even as he suggests the existence of something less relative -- e.g., "Think about the meaning of things. A thing does not exist unless a word calls it into life. We damage our most unique possession when we abuse language") the bulk of it is a somber discussion of life in a nuclear age.

Were it not for the events of 11 September 2002, many of his words might seem from a distant time. But the attacks on the USA of that day brought back, to may of us at least, the notion that forces beyond our individual control might result not in the kinds of accidental or senseless loss of life that affects us all on small to medium scales, but a near-global unleashing of death and destruction. And in that once-again changed context, his words are no longer anachronistic (if they, honestly, ever were).

The first section of the speech describes the then fairly recent (at least to a native New Yorker) phenomenon of the evangalistas preaching Biblical death and destruction.
I would turn on the radio or television to certain stations, because I wanted to know what was happening outside the four square yards of my private reality, and strange words would fill the air of my hotel room. Did I know that this was the end of days and that the four mighty beasts forseen by Daniel are soon to rise from the sea and there are to be great portents in the sky, as described by Saint John, and a seven-headed dragon will sweep stars from the heavens and a leopard-like beast will soon arise, together with angels and fire and a great voice? "Everything accursed shall be gone henceforth. And the throne of God and the Lamb shall be in it, and his slaves shall serve him.... And there shall be no night anymore... because the Lord God will illuminate them and they shall be kings forever and ever...."

You lie in the darkness or in the bleak light of an early morning and listen and watch. I wonder if there is a town in this land today where you cannot hear the voice of looming apocalypse, the ultimate revelation, the time very near at hand when human history will come to a cataclysmic end, and the Lord will enter human events to resolve our problems and to rule mankind forever. The Book of Daniel and the Revelation of Saint John are required reading, it would seem, in vast areas of America. There is a strange mood in the land today. It is what I call the mood of permanent apocalypse.
The next section deals with the human response to such a situation.
What am I doing here?

Does what I do with my life really mean anything?

What do I accomplish by accumulating all this education Why strive, why labor, why do anything, when everything can be reduced to burning primal ash in a few minutes of atomic destruction.

The four-o'clock-in-the-morning questions...

How do we live in an age of permanent apocalypse?
He then describes what he sees as the possible responses: (1) Physically drop out (like the Essenes); (2) Adopt fundamentalism. Here, he didn't get into his own Hassidic background, and he didn't mention the then seemingly-growing Christian fundamentalism, the source of the televised apocaltyptic concerns, much less the Muslim fundamentalism that is of such concern today; or (3) Live day to day:
There is a third choice. You can live on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis, concentrating on each activity as it comes, seeing the world as at times an interesting and at times an exhausting challenge, expecting no sudden transformations, and committed to the steady, gritty labor of slow progress. You work hard and you play hard -- in the teeth of the apocalypse. From time to time you wonder if what you do and how you live are worth all the effort -- and you continue to work and to play, hard.
The final section of the speech is a set of admonitions to the graduates: The kind of attempt at transgenerational wisdom transfer that ought to be part of every commencement speech, but that so rarely is effectively accomplished.
Remember that we are fragile creatures; that the small green spinning mote on which we live is fragile, too. We have always lived on the edge of endings. The illusion we have had of limiteless power and progress is a dream less than two-hundred years old. We will not fade away if it is now tempered by reality.

Remember that to a large extent we are indeed masters of our own destiny. We can rape this planet; it will pay us back in kind. If this world is destroyed, it will probably be because we destroyed it.

Remember what you learned here and how you learned it; how simple matters became increasingly complex; how even the most facile of subjects often left you behind. There are no simple answers save for the simple-minded....

Remember the excitement of ideas, the way your head was turned around by a thought. In the years to come, as you are caught up in the tumult and routine of life, that will be among the most precious of your memories.

Remember the fears and the hesitations as you sometimes faced the unknown. Will I make it through this subject?... Somehow you conquered those fears. You made it. You're here. Remember that. It will help you prevail over future fears.

Do not let what you have experienced here be spoiled in the coming years through the indolence and carelessness that are often born of material success.

Do not be enticed by the abstract word, the glib slogan -- even those put forth in a worthwhile cause....

Do not be easily drawn into the crowd. Often the crowd is the manipulated result of a small group's will to power. Think long and hard before joining any crowd. Crowds are a wild curse. It is true that from time to time their accomplishments have been constructive. Still, there has to be a better way to get good things done. I leave that as a challenge to your generation.

Do not go into the world without having read these three books: Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, and Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti.

Do not be contemptuous of that which you do not understand.... Just as a tall man will stoop to listen to a shorter person for whom he deeply cares, so I urge you to bend from the lofty perch of your own disciplines and to listen with high regard to disciplines not your own. If you are an engineer, listen to the artist; if you are a physicist, listen to the philosopher; if you are a logician, listen to the religionist; if you are in a postition of power, listen, listen. We need to listen to one another if we are to make it through this age of permanent apocalypse and avoid the chaos of the crowd.
So, even though I have read none of Chaim Potok's books, I feel comfortable saying that some aspects of this man's life contributed to the decency, to the thoughtfulness, of this world. His passing is something to mourn; his life, something to appreciate.