River of Berman
A tribute to the free-associating genius of the Silver Jews, whose work has flowed in and out of my life
I taught David Berman’s Actual Air the other day. Teaching books that really matter to you is always risky. Someone, or everyone, might dislike the book. This puts you in an even worse position than the “I am a fraud” problem. (If you have to ask, you have not taught creative writing.) Having your cherished book be greeted with dislike by your students requires epic expenditures of self-restraint. Someone says they are bored or grossed out or annoyed by a book you love, and you have to equanimously nod your head—It’s unnatural. Maybe this is a failure of imagination on my part, and I should argue with them like I would if I was talking to somebody at a bar or a party. But you can’t go stomping around on the tender shoots. And so one must suppress the love you feel for the book, and the joy of talking about books dies a little, which is to say you die a little.
That didn’t happen with Actual Air. The students found its imagery and mood curious. They liked it. The dissenters seemed to focus on the attitude emanating from the book itself: the cover design, the author on the back, slouched like a hipster Jesus with Ulysses Grant’s face emblazoned on his T-shirt.
But the sheer joy of Berman’s dissociative mind didn’t quite make it through to the students. Which is maybe just as well. On some level you want the books you love to be a secret. You wish success for them and their author, but you also want their magic to be yours alone.
The great Jewish talent, I sometimes think, is the ability to let go of the talisman of the literal and drift into the ether of free association. This letting go is a second cousin to mysticism. Free association is both an embrace of the thought that drifts before your eyes and a kind of rejection, as well, of where that thought might lead. You perceive the logical course and then make a lateral movement away from that course as though logic is a magnet with a positive polarity and the perceiving mind a magnet whose polarity is negative. Free association, when elevated to art, is the ability to be free of sense in a way that makes sense.
For example one night in Prague Kafka is taking a walk with Gustav Janusch when a dog crosses the street in the distance.
“What was that?” says Kafka.
“A dog,” says Janouch.
“It could be a dog, or it could be a sign,” Kafka says. “We Jews often make tragic mistakes.”
When I first heard that Kafka’s stories were received as being hilarious when he read them, it stunned me. Maybe the last lines of “A Hunger Artist” have the rhythm of a joke. But it had never occurred to me to think of his writing as funny. But then who knows how he read them out loud, or what his voice sounded like? So much changes when you hear words spoken by a human voice.
Free association is not surrealism, nor is it dream logic. I use it to connote that curious levity and the vertiginous thrill that come when the mind leaps unexpectedly from one place to the next—a crackling fire sending out an errant spark that goes flying beyond the immediate circle of light, a tiny shooting star entering darkness.
Free association finds expression most famously, and perhaps most Jewishly, in psychoanalysis. But it is an essential component of all creativity. For example this line from David Berman’s poem, “If There Was a Book About This Hallway.”
If Christ had died in a hallway we might pray in hallways
or wear little golden hallways around our necks.
Ever since I read that I find myself pondering, now and then, unprovoked, what a hallway would look like rendered into an amulet.
There is a strong current of aphorism in Berman’s poetry. Another line I think of and quote often: “Souvenirs only remind you of buying them.” I look at the souvenirs in my house. Accumulations from travels near and far. I live among these objects but see them only now and then. And when I see them, and really look at them, I sometimes remember buying them. Sometimes I just think of that line.
I was standing at The Other Deli. It was on 93rd Street and Broadway, on the southwest corner. Across the street, on the northwest corner, was another Korean deli. My deli. They were side by side, or face to face, depending on how you looked at it. Sometimes, when the flowers that ran along their perimeters were especially abundant and blooming, they seemed to be literally bristling at one another. I imagined the sense of rivalry to be intense to the point of primal.
I kept it simple by patronizing the deli that was on my side of the street. But now and then I would patronize The Other Deli, I don’t know why. Maybe I was hedging with karma, the way people and corporations will sometimes give to both candidates running for the same elected position. It was late one night at The Other Deli, under fluorescent lights, that I had my first encounter with the Silver Jews.
If you hired some viral marketer to promote the Silver Jews in 1994 you couldn’t have done better than this: You take a pasty white guy, dress him in punk rock rags, and have him shave an X into the top of his head, otherwise covered with hair. It looked a lot like male pattern balding—this was disturbing, as it was surely meant to be. This young white punk in line in front of me was holding a record. A single album, which he put down flat on the counter as he paid. By 1994 the LP was already a novelty, maybe even more than it is now because it was merely obsolete and had not yet attained fetish status. So, you had a pale, reverse Mohawk punk on whose album cover was a German expressionist hodge-podge with some blue in it and the words, “Silver Jews.” It could not have been a more glamorous, ennobling, mysterious introduction to a band. I thought, “Cool name.”
There is a genius to defying expectations. David Berman is that kind of genius. Even the most famously manic reinventors tend to morph within their chosen medium. But Berman is a mixed-medium guy. He gets in bed with a medium—music, or poetry, or Judaism, or muckraking journalism. (This list feels like an IQ test question: Which one does not belong? Is Judaism a medium? Like acrylic paint or clay? Like the Internet? Something that a creator gives shape to? Or is it a medium in that other sense of communicating with the unseen and unknown? With the dead?) He does something magical in the dark, produces a record, or a book of poems, and the next morning he’s gone.
The Rankin-Bass animated specials are yuletide staples, so why do they look Jewish and sound gay?