Is There Something Jewish About Genius?
By JOSH LAMBERT
THE DIALOGUES OF TIME AND ENTROPY
By Aryeh Lev Stollman.
227 pages. Riverhead Books. $24.95.
Jews are known, among other things, for giving the world
some incredible geniuses. From the paradigmatically white-haired and wild-eyed
Albert Einstein to the great shapers of the twentieth century, Sigmund Freud
and Karl Marx, Jews have again and again flipped the world of ideas on its head
and become the objects of fascination for legions of normal people.
What would it be like to have the inspiration of a genius?
Only a handful of humans will ever answer that question experientially, but the
rest of us can contemplate the hints of modern genius strewn throughout Aryeh
Lev Stollman's first collection of short fiction, The Dialogues of Time and
Stollman, a neuroradiologist at the Mount Sinai Medical
Center in Manhattan, is the author of two critically acclaimed novellas, The
Far Euphrates and The Illuminated Soul. His spare prose, girded with religious
and scientific terminology, keeps the reader at a distance: reading his novels
often feels like overhearing a wistful song being sung behind a closed door.
This enchanting sense of remove increases with the brevity of his stories,
which were written before his novels and published in journals like Tikkun,
Pakn Treger, and Story.
Stollman's protagonists here are composers, neuroanatomists,
scriptural scholars, science fiction authors, and theoretical physicists; even
when the narrators are children, they're talented science students or amateur
poets. In a few cases, their work is described grandiosely, like the composer
in "The Adornment of Days," who, lost in thought about the opera he
is writing, "suddenly hears, in sweeping and glorious bitonal progressions—A
major with F-sharp minor, E-flat major, and C minor—the whole host of heaven,
singing before him." More often, though, they refer to their work
matter-of-factly. The narrator of the title story remarks casually that in
searching for the cure to a horrifying disease, polymerase dementia, he
"mapped out the amino acid sequence and, more crucially, its cross-linkage
and three-dimensional structure." Sure, no problem.
More troublesome for these brainy characters are the
challenges of human relations. As readers, we expect geniuses to be alienated
from their families and from the rest of us moderately intelligent people (see,
for example, Rebecca Goldstein's novel The Mind-Body Problem and the
movie Good Will Hunting). True to form, a pervasive sense of loneliness
fills this book. Though he gets no more excited about deconstructing molecules
than tying his shoelaces, the narrator of the title story can't connect with
his wife, a physicist: "Ahuva was brilliant," he says, "but she
made no sense to me." The composer to whom the "host of heaven"
reveals itself so gloriously can only share intimacy with a nearly anonymous
young man in one of Jerusalem's public parks. It's not easy being a genius.
The most compelling question about men and women of
incomprehensible brilliance is, perhaps, how they got to be that way.
Stollman's stories never attack this question head-on, but throughout the book
creative and intellectual inspiration is often intriguingly conflated with
spiritual enlightenment. The opera composer hears divinity in his work; the
misunderstood physicist in the title story leaves her husband in Canada to join
a religious settlement in the West Bank; a world-renowned painter in "The
Creation of Anat" uses his neuroanatomist daughter as a model for Eve.
These stories raise questions about the relationship between faith and genius
the answers to which lie beyond the purview of fiction, but ultimately
Stollman's work is refreshing for treating science, art, music, and religion
with equal amounts of reverence and wonder.
While some contemporary Jewish writers treat the Orthodox as
preciously exotic or hopelessly foreign, Stollman captures what the narrator of
"If I Have Found Favor in Your Eyes," a secular teenager with a new
set of Orthodox neighbors, calls the "enchantment brought about by the
serenity and conviction" of religious Jews. The collection leaves one
wondering whether this "serenity and conviction," or some other
characteristic of the Jews, contributes to the development of intellectual
virtuosos. In other words, is there something Jewish about genius?
To what degree is it relevant, for example, that Einstein,
Freud, and Marx all came from more or less assimilated Jewish homes? Or, is
this, and the fact that Jews have raked in about 215 Nobel Prizes, pure
coincidence? Don't expect an answer from The Dialogues of Time and Entropy—just
more fascinating questions about the nature of creativity and faith. Not quite
a work of genius, it is nonetheless a haunting, enlightening, and powerful