Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Dorian Gray, Qoheleth, and Narcissism

Over the Sukkot vacation, I asked my sophomore class, which had read The Picture of Dorian Gray over the summer, to consider Qoheleth as well as a piece I'd written on a Jewish view on narcissism, which you can find here. Following is a student response that really blew me away:

As Jews, we believe in a life in which we are restricted from engaging in decadence and vanity: we deny ourselves pork, meat and milk together, working or doing electronics on Shabbat, being unfaithful and even wearing linen mixed with wool in our socks. Although we are not the most aesthetic people ever, even those of us who don't have a religious career still abhor things others cannot live without. We are taught that a good, meaningful life is one that is spent, at least partially, in worship of G-D. Every year on Chanukah, we describe a great victory over Hellenism, the Greek culture of beauty and decadence. The pious Maccabees, led by Mattisyahu, drove out the Hellenistic Syrians and slaughtered those who adopted the Hellenistic lifestyle. The Hellenistic way of life, one of dedication to leisure and beauty, was a total antithesis to Judaism. The Hellenists believed in beauty, spring, the arts, youth. On page 24 of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry exclaims, "For there is such a little time that your youth will last--such a little time. The common hill-flowers wither, but they blossom again. The laburnum will be as yellow next June as it is now. In a month there will be purple stars on the clematis, and year after year the green night of its leaves will hold its purple stars. But we never get back our youth. The pulse of joy that beats in us at twenty becomes sluggish. Our limbs fail, our senses rot. We degenerate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memory of the passions of which we were too much afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we had not the courage to yield to. Youth! Youth! There is absolutely nothing in the world but youth!". Meanwhile, the book of Kohelet claims, "Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thy heart, and in the sight of thine eyes; but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.Therefore remove vexation from thy heart, and put away evil from thy flesh; for childhood and youth are vanity" (Kohelet 11:9 -11:10). To Kohelet, focusing one's life on youth and hedonism is futile, for only G-D and good deeds are worthy causes.

In modern times, the philosophy of Hellenism is revived in movements like Aesthetics or Avant Garde. Judaism seems to be a sharp contrast to these too. Perhaps the most prominent example of this is Chaim Potok's Asher Lev, a novel in which the protagonist, a young Chasid with a gift for painting, must choose between his community and his art. In the end, he is forced to choose his art, painting a picture of his mother nailed to a cross in between her often-absent husband and her struggling child. But for displaying a crucifix, and moreover, for pointing a spotlight on his family's internal issues, he was exiled from his community. The harsh social criticism, the dive into self reflection that is a pillar of Hellenism, is totally alien to Judaism. The Jew doesn't examine himself like Narcissus, instead he looks toward what he could be, what he should be. One could say we are a people that has low self-esteem. When we study the Torah, we remind ourselves of sins we have done, like the golden calf, the rebellion in the desert and the destruction of the second Temple. The practitioners of Hellinism, Atheistics, or some other modern equivalent, prefer to put themselves on high, with stunning artwork, scandalous fashion, constantly analyzing themselves. To some, Jews may look like sad sacks, fasting on Yom Kippur and pounding our chest every Shemonah Esrei. But to us, it is a drive towards a higher, holier, more perfect version of ourselves. We are not the beautiful marble statue that, a marvel in its youth, now sits dusty in a museum, out of fashion. We are the seedling, far below the ground, but prepared to shoot up to be a majestic redwood tree. We do not reminisce about fleeting youth, but strive towards a better version of ourselves. We are not the past, we are the future.

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