A True and Faithful History of the Golem of Třebíč

After so many great pieces of flash fiction, I hope I will be forgiven for including a piece of non-fiction.

Most of you are familiar with Dan Holloway’s story The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes, with its reclusive character Shuji Nomoto. Not many know that there was actually a real-life Shuji Nomoto, a theoretical physicist known as Haru Suzuki. He was a recluse who lived with his mother in a small house in one of the poorer districts of Kyoto.

As a youth, Suzuki had been outgoing and athletic, and a notable martial artist. He was actually a Kendoka, having reached the eighth dan in ancient Japanese art of swordsmanship, kendo. When he was 28, however, Haru Suzuki barricaded himself in his bedroom and began a sort of monastic retreat, in which he devoted himself to the problem of reconciling Einstein’s theories of relativity and quantum physics. Suzuki believed he could build on the standard method of modelling time in physics, to give time an ontology similar to space. This would mean that time was just another dimension, that future events already existed, and that there was no objective, uni-directional flow of time.

In the West, many physicists were unhappy with Suzuki’s theory, because of its implications for free will; they believed he was proposing that future events were fixed and pre-determined. I had the privilege of studying the personal papers that Suzuki left to the University of Kyoto, and it is clear that he took a radically different position. In one paper, he imagined, with Augustine of Hippo, that God, being eternal, was outside of time. When God looked down upon the created world, He saw space-time as a ‘block universe’, in which time exists as a fourth dimension, alongside the three of space. (The block universe was equivalent to the Dharmadhatu, in Buddhist thought, the ‘total field of events and meanings’.)

The ‘block universe’ included all actual and potential events, and when individuals made a decision involving free will, their lives followed a different trajectory through it. At the same time, an alternative trajectory existed, in which the individual had made a different decision. These alternative trajectories form a branching tree, symbolising all possible outcomes of any interaction. Rather than refer to parallel universes, Suzuki preferred to think of a life history as being a trajectory or path through the infinite number of potential events. As a Buddhist, he believed this related to the doctrine of Karma, and the way actions shaped consciousness, although the passage of time was essentially illusory and subjective, being created by the mind.

It was here that Suzuki lost his Western followers, because he gave quantum theory a distinctively Japanese twist. As a Kendoka, Suzuki aspired to the state of muslin, or ‘empty mind’, which relates to the Buddhist concept of shunyata, or voidness. Suzuki believed that, if the mind-consciousness was in a state of muslin, it could move outside of the confines of space-time. Through meditation, he argued, it would be possible to be liberated from the illusion of time’s arrow, and access knowledge of the past and future, and of different worlds. Suzuki called this the Urashima Taro Conjecture, after an ancient Japanese tale about a young fisherman who visits an undersea palace and stays there for three days. When Urashima Taro returns home, he finds himself three hundred years in the future, his house in ruins, and his family long dead.

For the last two years of his life, while Suzuki struggled to resolve this problem, he received all his meals on a tray, and only emerged from his bedroom when his mother was asleep, to empty his antique, Edo-period chamber pot. And then, one fresh Spring morning, when the cherry blossom was just about to flower, Haru Suzuki disappeared. When several meals were left untouched, his mother persuaded a neighbour to force an entry to his locked bedroom, and they found it empty. The bed had been slept in—there was still the indent of his head on the pillow, and the bed was warm—and the chamber pot had been used but not emptied, yet there was no sign of Suzuki. He could not have left the house without passing through the room in which his mother slept, and she was convinced she’d have woken. She believed he was still there. She felt his presence, and carried on leaving food for him as though he was invisible, or had become an ancestral spirit, needing nourishment from sacrificial offerings.

Suzuki was listed as a missing person by the Japanese police, and he appeared to have vanished without trace. To understand his fate, it is necessary to go back in history to the strange events of 1680, when there was a pogrom in Moravia, a region of Eastern Europe that is now in the Czech Republic. In that momentous year, the inhabitants of the Jewish ghetto in Třebíč discovered a wild, naked creature roaming the streets, terrorising the townspeople who were trying to attack their neighbourhood. The creature, which was seven foot tall, tore a long pole from the scaffolding outside a derelict property and charged at the mob, using the pole as both a lance and a flail. Three people were killed before the mob fled in panic. Taken before the Rabbi Bezalel, it was confirmed that the creature had been created from the riverside clay by the famous Kabbalist, Abraham Zacchi, who had recently died.

The Rabbi announced that the monster was a Golem, an incomplete or demonic Adam, kneaded from the earth like the first Adam, but lacking a divine soul. The Golem could only speak a barbaric tongue, and was bereft of reason, so the Rabbi wrote the divine name, Adonai ha-Aretz, upon its brow, to bind it to service. It was imprisoned in a room above the Neuschul synagogue, from which it was only released to perform errands, or to defend the ghetto in times of peril. When unchained, the Golem fought with a ferocity that became legendary. It could only be subdued by the Rabbi reciting the Ineffable Names of God.

Later that year, the Spanish Inquisition tried 72 people for being Judaizers, the descendants of forcibly converted Jews who secretly practiced the Jewish religion. Over 60 were burned at the stake in Madrid, the King of Spain lighting the fires personally. This sparked anti-semitic riots across Europe. Hundreds of Jews were killed in Bohemia and Moravia, but not one person was harmed in Třebíč. When the mob surged down an empty Blahoslavova Street, they were confronted by the hideous figure of the Golem. It stood silently in the middle of the highway, a wooden stave held aloft, and waited until the crowd was almost level, before springing forward and attacking all within reach. Sixteen men were clubbed to death, and three more died subsequently from abdominal injuries.

Eventually, the Golem was destroyed by the terrified citizens of Třebíč. A pack of hounds, followed by a gang of apprentices carrying lighted torches, chased the creature for several hundred yards down Blahoslavova Street, before cornering it in a courtyard, like a wild beast. Despite the monster’s piteous howling, the apprentice boys succeeded in tying it in a sack and dropping its body into the River Jilava, where it dissolved before their eyes, and returned to the mud from whence it came.

After the Golem’s destruction, the Rabbi inspected the room in which it had been confined and found the walls to be covered in mathematical formulae, and strange writing. The writing seemed related to Enochian, the Angelic language discovered by Dr John Dee, astrologer to the English Queen Elizabeth, and visiting alchemist at the court of Emperor Rudolph II in Prague. Rabbi Bezalel made a careful transcription of the writing, ordered that it should be preserved for posterity, and recorded the whole story in a Hebrew manuscript, held at the Charles University in Prague. A copy of the manuscript, together with an English translation, A True and Faithful History of the Golem of Třebíč, is available in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

There the story might have ended, had not a group of Japanese Communist Party delegates visited the synagogue in 1965, when it formed part of the Museum of Atheism of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. Not only could they decipher the sixteenth century writing, they claimed it was in Gyousho, the Japanese semi-cursive script. It said, “Pity me, poor Haru, who demonstrated the truth of the Urashima Taro Conjecture, who went to sleep in his room in Kyoto in 2009, and awoke in this land of ghosts.”

Footnote: Some say that the learned Rabbi controlled the Golem through the God Name Adonai ha-Aretz, which is Lord of Earth, who governs the clay from which it was made. Others, however, say the Rabbi wrote the word Emet, or Truth, upon its forehead, and that he could disable the creature by rubbing out the first letter (aleph) leaving the word Met, or death, upon its brow.

Larry Harrison

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~ by yearzerowriters on October 22, 2009.

12 Responses to “A True and Faithful History of the Golem of Třebíč”

  1. [...] A True and Faithful History of the Golem of Třebíč « Year Zero Writers [...]

  2. You write about physics very well, man. Though I’m gonna need to read it again to get it clear in my head.

    I liked the part about the ‘potential existences’ not being called parallel realities. So, there’s only a load of potential Olis next to me somewhere, not actual Olis. Is that right?

    Oli

  3. Larry, I remember you talking about this over on Aggie – it’s utterly fascinating. And I love the idea the empty mind moving beyond space-time – I can see its relation to Buddism but I’m surprised western readers would find it so perplexing. What it reminds me of most is the modernist idea of a pure structure or pure form that somehow moves away from content altogether – the way writers and artists use repetition and disjunctions to disrupt meaning altogether to such an extent the mind is carried utterly away from meaning to the realm of “words themselves” “images themselves” or pure structure – which all sounds strangely Platonic.

    I’m sure Marc would have some interesting ideas on this.
    Dan

  4. Welcome back!

    I think that even irreligious people who have been raised within a theistic tradition, and brought up with the concept of an immortal soul, are uncomfortable with the idea of Voidness and of Anatta – no immortal, unchanging self. (Not, however, mystics like Thomas Merton, who saw beyond the language.) But you may be right that postmodernists connect back to these ideas, or rather are concerned with directly apprehending reality?

    Yes, this is an idea that was sparked off by your Shuji Nomoto, at a time when I was reading Rachel Lichtenstein’s book on David Rodinsky, who disappeared mysteriously from his room above a synagogue in Whitechapel. But it probably doesn’t work as an entertainment, because readers will find the paragraphs on physics off-putting!

  5. I can’t imagine people finding passages on physics boring – especially when it delves into topics like the multiverse.

    So glad you mentioned mysticism – I’m preparing a piece for the blog here bout “the shock of the new” (being in France has got me thinking about Duchamp), and Abstract Expressionism brought mysticism to mind – like you say because of that direct apprehension of reality. Just to clarify – I think it’s Modernism rather than postmodernism that the emptiness idea made me think of.

    Dan

  6. Sorry, I was using postmodernism loosely (and incorrectly) to mean the world since the arrival of modernism, rather than the movement that developed in reaction to modernism. And in fine art, it is the modernists – who are on the rise again, although most London galleries and the Tate Modern have yet to hear the news – as you say it is the modernists who are concerned with the apprehension of reality. Talking about the shock of the new, did you see that article by jeanette Winterson in the NY Review of Books – someone posted a link on Twitter – where she touches on the difference between “making new” and novelty?

  7. I didn’t but I’ll have a search. It’s nice to see Modernism resurgent – and fantastic that we have a genuine Modernist in our midst in the form of Marc. I have a feelnig Penny would qualify too if it were possible to put her in a box, which I very much doubt it is. It feels as though we might acually be on the right side of the cutting edge for once.

  8. Sorry it was the Wall Street Journal and here’s the link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704322004574475654003711242.html?mod=rss_whats_news_us
    It’s just an aside, but you want to sit down and ask her to tell you more – great article.

  9. Fascinating article, Larry – Jeanette Winterson is one of those people I’ve come to appreciate over the years. When she was younger she used to annoy the bejesus out fo me, largely because she came across as genuinely believing she was IT, the most original, most talented, most brilliant human being who’d ever lived. Which she isn’t. But when she forgets to posture and just talks, she has a huge amount to say.

    Interesting to read this article after chatting with Penny this morning about being “wrung out” by SKIN BOOK. I feel very ambivalent about the article’s content. On the one hand I agree that good art comes from beneath the surface (even when, like kitsch, its formal interest IS “the surface”). On the other, I’m aware that fashionable as it’s always been to talk about madness and genius, the scientifc data just don’t stack – from what I’ve read on the subject, the only two conditions that have a direct correlation to creativity are 1. certain specific degenerative brain conditions that literally eat the barriers between areas of the brain and release creative connections for brief periods before the condition kills you and 2. Tourette’s, which does something similar, removing filters that exist between different sections of the brain. As I know from my work in mental health, most schizophrenics, depressives, psychotics, and manic depressives are just as dull as the rest of us, and glamourising their condition is actually rather daft.

    On the other hand again, I’m aware of a symbiosis (parasitism?) in my head between my constant questioning of the world and a state of general malaise that results; and between my own bipolar condition and the need to be very self-analytical (self-aware? self-obsessed?).

    There’s a blog post on the subject – but first I’m going to write up my Duchamp article

  10. There’s a lot of good stuff here – much of it just alluded to. The first couple of paras are just a mundane, journalistic introduction, which sets the article up as yet another piece on the link between genius and madness, but what she seems to be saying later is that creativity comes out of the drive towards health – “Creativity takes the heavy mass of our lives and transforms it back into available energy”. This is a very different proposition, and suggests that art is part of a drive towards wholeness, a way of dealing with the madness or confusion that we all experience, whether we are considered to have a disorder by others or not?

    Re-reading her article, I think her position is probably confused, but I’ll forgive her that for saying things that made me sit up and think! It will be a great subject for a blog. Great to have you back!

  11. “Creativity takes the heavy mass of our lives and transforms it back into available energy”.

    Yes, that’s a very nice line. It’s good to be back. I snuck back once whilst I was away for two scrambled minutes in a hotel foyer (when I put the “read more” thingies in) but that was it.

    Dan

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