A Reading of Joshua Cohen’s A Heaven of Others
Drawings by Michael Hafftka
Starcherone Books, Buffalo, NY, 2008, 178 pages.
[Note: This piece's original form included numerous endnotes and links, which I decided not to post here due to tedious technical difficulties. However, I hope this reading sings Cohen's novel as is. If not, nothing's perfect.]
Judaism’s cosmic hoop seems broken, at least for one dead child.
Joshua Cohen’s novel, A Heaven of Others, verbalizes 10-year-old Jonathan Schwarzstein’s soul’s trip through a Muslim heaven, which occurs after he and his parents’ are slaughtered at the hands of an exploding Palestinian boy outside a Jerusalem shoe store.
All Jonathan wants is the fundamental correction of his re-placement into the proper heaven where he’ll be re-united with his mother and father.
His desired afterlife seems an articulation of the common Jewish idea of heaven as some mystical future when, according to Cohen, human life on earth might actually become enlightened in the here-now, as opposed to the common Christian and Muslim traditions of heaven being a complex of eternal cosmic warehouses of the “good.”
Jonathan, like God and by Divine Intention “His” “chosen people,” desires to occupy a figment of his imagination, a shard of his former self dreaming the dream of when this between-phase exodus will end and he’ll be in his desired after heaven…stuck to the mindful membrane of his warmest, brightest fantasies…
The novel unravels these mental energies by showing them as demonstrations of mind. Jonathan’s lucid choices amid this apparent psychic chaos have ontological clout because they evolve the realms of awareness he recursively occupies.
Cohen states in his essay, “On Writing A Heaven of Others:”
For Jews, especially those after Spinoza’s Enlightenment, heaven is not the attainment of souls, but the work of the living embodied.
He doesn’t, however, cite any of the three “noble” religions [Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism ], nor Hinduism [except for some remark about elephants holding up the world ], as having influenced him. Yet the narrative he’s spun seems to fit over the patterns revealed in these eastern traditions, to which he claims to have sought some sort of reconciliation with Western philosophy via Judaism. Cohen writes:
… I set out to make…an art of peace. A Heaven of Others attempts to put to rest the idea of an afterlife established exclusively for one religion or race ….
The task of writing this epic “afterlife” prose poem necessitated Cohen’s becoming something of a “psychonaut,” imagining in the first person a murdered child’s post-mortem adventures, inviting whatever he’d been perhaps repressing to erupt within the given framework…as if in a dream. Cohen, in my view, unleashes his mind’s uncanny ability to project new realms of awareness by allowing Jonathan’s ego to become enough of an enabling obstacle, enough of an adequate form of the right kind of friction, for the author’s voice to make sense from nonsense, allowing for new emergencies from old content [new patterns within given parameters], surrendering to the ever-continuing existence of mind.
Over time and the space of pages, the reader of Cohen’s text may begin discerning the “psychomythology of everyday life.” Like God, Jonathan needs to “walk outside his own house” and experience otherness if he’s to re-occupy and have dominion over his imagined reality…his imagined Jewish desire for an imaginary Zion. But Jonathan would prefer not to. Israel symbolizes the setting of the stage for this future Zion, and like Jonathan must pass through the Valley of Nails [past Mohammed, symbolized by a serpent in the boy’s mind] to get there, to actually become what It’s dreaming. Jonathan, seeming the personification of Israel, repeatedly sees an image of himself nailed to a mountainside…God’s will be done not as It is in heaven, but because It is heaven…not because God is merciful, but because It isn’t unmerciful.
In “heaven” everything seems an inversion of the boy’s psychic processes…as if things were turned inside-out revealing the subconscious movements inside his awareness. His waking world seams projections as our dream-worlds suture away, the difference being the dimensions or aspects of the psyche actually seaming prominent in the seeming here-now, the one most constantly changing, evolving in some sort of self-sustaining disequilibrium.
The novel’s esoterica [that God seems absented in the Muslim heaven because Cohen approaches God—or Allah—via negation —a sighting of form without content—a heaven without us—a seeking of transcendence beyond the ever-present “me/them” duality, achieving at some future point at-one-ment with God on Earth] seems projected onto the page as Jonathan’s hoped-for reunion with his parents in a heaven of their own…the mystical Jewish heaven of Jonathan’s…
…KARMA…in which Jonathan’s angel via Cohen describes “the podiatry of [the child’s alienated] wandering” about his Muslim afterlife, feeling like an Exodus ending at some point when he might once again walk in his own shoes rather than roaming about “unshod” or in the ill-fitting hand-me-down footwear given to him as one of “them,” one of the displaced, the poor, the wandering wretched of “heaven,” whose trail of tears has no reservations…
Jonathan seems, to my reading, a Joseph, an Esau, the medieval Wandering Jew all rolled into one. He’s the Israelites, roaming the Wilderness without Moses, needing to somehow transcend his former Judaism the hard way, without dying, by “facing the more complex realities of daily exigencies,” as Cohen himself has written.
In the chapter “A Pilgrimage,” A Heaven of Others becomes something of a hero’s journey, a spiritual exodus sliding unshod along a seam[s] of eternity, becoming a repressed form of the heroic Self re-turning into the identifiable frameworks of ever re-creating emergencies, uncannily subverting Jonathan’s own word-being epistemologies with an ecstatic carpeting of verbal mind bombs...then slipping away, the hero eluding its necessary martyrdom, denying the once required sacrifice...
Despite the strength of his faith [which doesn’t move mountains, as stated above, but rather nails him to them], the fruit of Jonathan’s language seems to have fallen from its tree. Cohen invokes a mixture of Kafka’s In The Penal Colony, Zionism and the myth of Sodom and Gomorrah in “The Valley of the Nails” passage describing Mohammed’s heavenly situation, the necessary passage of His in-between, where God seams the language hearing-speaking Mohammed’s apparatus, that mechanism of nails ripping his flesh and torturing him, turning him into a giant, eternally disfigured, fork-tongued serpent forever passing along the gauntlet of the empathetic language gnawing Its way through Him with barbed words forming narratives of the displaced, of the repressed and/or oppressed. Apart from seeming an inversion of Jonathan’s identification with The Prophet, this passage seems a projection of Cohen’s own situation writing this novel. His portrayal feels empathetic with Mohammed’s cosmic predicament.
Then, through the sheer power of Cohen’s lyrical prose, the novel begins, perhaps, conjuring up a new myth, emerging from a mish-mash of old ones, maturing infinitely inward…nails forever ripening his impertinence…exploding the invalid, which is to say inadequate, representations of his all too human desire, hoping to uncover the seams of some new limitation…stitching…
…THREE ENTRY POINTS, BEIT PERHAPS…
…Kabbalists believe, to my understanding, that God created man in His own image [mind/body/soul] so He could possess man and dominate His own creation. I think “man” can, in some ways, be read as God’s fall into Nature. God didn’t create “man” in His image, but “man” emerged from God’s inward, ever-ripening, narcissistic self-reflection…Its eye/I seaming a nail. This God does not create creation so much as use the ongoing emergency of Its narcissism to forever become Itself in Its own “eyes.” Therefore, there is no “heaven of us” as previously desired—only a more sensitive, self-regarding state of mind some might call “heaven,” of which we are only players, and then only according to our degree of empathy.
In the chapter “Limitation,” Jonathan says “…a distinction must be made between limitation and weakness,” and that during his never-ending Odyssey, he “…sought the brotherhood merited in, and gracing surrender.”
It’s not that Jonathan would not pass through The Valley of Nails to help God inhabit Zion, it’s that the Valley of Nails passed through Jonathan to help Zion inhabit God. The fundamental direction of the old myth seems inverted, Jonathan listens, becomes passive rather than speaking. It’s not that he would not pass through, but should not as an article of the new faith [cognitive limit] emerging from his en-lightened experience, seeming the ripple effect of the original explosion of a few initial conditions…the big bang of his textual universe paradoxically seaming the obedient side of prayer, in which the listener would not ignore the exploding spirit.
Jonathan would have passed through the Valley of Nails but the old myth seemed stale, that story—having become a voice without an ear—had discovered its limits in real time, leading to his realization that “…though I am in the wrong heaven it is only because I think this is the wrong heaven,” and also leading to his decision that he “should like to consecrate this homesick history, mine—to vial and stop this mad gushing past,” venting his profound desire to go beyond it...
…WITHOUT BECOMING CLICHÉ…
…metamorphosing “A ‘Metaphor’”…mixing higher and lower waters… Jonathan’s angel tells Cohen, as if in a dream:
…bathing [writing] me was A process as strange and as involved as that of any political [psychological] negotiations… [my voice] required An artful and experienced manipulation of both taps [God and Man]…those twinned faucets pouring individually…so the mingling so the mating of the two waters…
…forever ripening one’s side of everything…a kind of ghost dance emergency evolving…
“like that absolute truly terrible dreaming of dreaming of mine.”
And so it seams to its own end. Perhaps the hoop is no longer broken, or all that unfixable…for now.
Yet at some point, if one matures forever inward, it seems to me some future text might require liberation from a merely human-centered focus into something else, something other…a transhuman sublime…if it’s to continue evolving.
Though A Heaven of Others doesn’t achieve this, its movement seems in that direction—from me to us to “chosen people” to humankind to animal kingdom to living things to life itself and perhaps beyond...
What else should one ask of a human novelist?
Finally, this novel is beautifully and disturbingly illustrated by Michael Hafftka. Check him out at www.hafftka.com.
“The Wrong Heaven: Critic Joshua Cohen on His New Novel,” By Dan Elkind, Published January 16, 2008, issue of Forward, January 18, 2008.
“On Writing A Heaven of Others,” By Joshua Cohen.
“In The Penal Colony,” Franz Kafka.
“Jackals and Arabs,” Franz Kafka.