Can you reconstruct the creative process that led you to write The i Tetralogy?
i wrote itself.
i was written in white heat over a two-week period; it was as if I
were channeling my unconscious. I believe that this first of four books
on the Holocaust simmered and percolated inside me, away from consciousness,
for about four decades. At twenty I read the confession of
the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolph Hoess, who was required to
write it prior to his hanging in 1947. A riveting book, perplexing and
reptilian in its fascination, here was a man who had studied to be a seminarian,
yet ended his life as a loyal and dedicated Nazi. The book has
always stayed in mind, for within its pages is the entire Rosetta stone
to the Nazi mind, to humankind gone to seed.
As I matured I began slowly to comprehend the two selves that
Hoess inhabited, for he was a “doppelganger.” I began to understand
how he could “split,” to use the psychoanalytical term for the defense
mechanism, one self a seemingly rational and caring spouse and father,
lover of his German shepherds, the other a fiercely prideful and prejudicial
Nazi. Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors deals with this phenomenon
in comprehensive detail. And this fabric tear of self, this
numbness to human pain, later finds its way into my work.
Hoess’s autobiographical tale stayed with me, made a deposit in my
unconscious. If I recall correctly, the book is matter-of-fact, which
makes it awful. It is descriptive and lacks self-analysis and moral
insight. That makes it appalling.
My life, my rearing, my secular Judaism, my Hebrew school training,
my first encounter with anti-Semitism, coalesce into a strong ethnic
sense of identification with my forebears. I am, as I have been, a
proud Jew, realizing in college that a required two-year course in contemporary
civilization had little to say about the significant—the enormous—
Jewish contribution to the world. Chauvinistically, one might
argue that the history of the Western world, at least, is the history of
the Jew: Moses…Jesus…Spinoza…Maimonides…Marx…Einstein…
Freud. Other than selections by Spinoza, and Freud, Jews did not exist
in Western civilization: Jews were a fascinating living fossil, but not
I remember in high school a chemistry teacher vehemently denied
that soap could be made from rendered-down human fat—this was
before 1960, when William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
provided, in an extended footnote, the exact recipe. I had known about
the formula from reading, and asked the teacher to comment. After his
response I no longer trusted him. This was in the ’50s, before the Eichmann
trial, and the word Holocaust was not yet in the language, not
even in Hebrew school. Jews were traumatized worldwide, but I had
read by then a great deal about Jewish history. (I recall one author used
a pen name that spelled “suffer Israel” backwards.) I knew what was
reasonably true and false. I knew the suffering that the Christian world
had inflicted upon the Jew over two thousand years—and I was resentful,
surly, and rageful about the injustice of it all: the reek of hypocrisy
overwhelmed my sensibilities. Any minority member learns a great
deal about the majority in order to cope, adapt, and struggle back. I can
do a few minutes on the differences between “transubstantiation” and
“consubstantiation,” as well as the immaculate conception.
I was—I am—a passive-aggressive personality; but when it comes
to being a Jew, I am a lion. The ’50s were a time when Kirk Douglas, a
ragpicker’s son, born Issur Danielovitch, who later changed his name
to Isidore Demsky, and Tony Curtis, born Bernard Schwartz, the son
of an immigrant tailor, were not clearly identified as Jews. It would
have been desirable, encouraging, even ennobling, to identify with a
Jewish movie star at age fifteen or sixteen. The assimilated Jewish producers
and movie studio heads had sold out years ago, and fed the
goyim stereotypes, and married their shiksa princesses, at great cost.
At thirteen I lived in a housing project on the other side of the
tracks. I played sandlot baseball in Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn. And
almost every time I played, one boy, Billy, taller than I, very athletic,
Viking in appearance, would have a fit—a rather disturbed young boy,
as I look back now as a therapist. He would get frustrated sometime
during the game or claim he beat the throw to second. He wanted his
way. Often he would work himself up into a lathered frenzy and stomp
the base itself, actually fight with it. It reminded me of a cartoon fight,
flurries, puffs of animated smoke, sounds, swirling bodies barely discernible
in the scrap, and exaggerated responses. We would stop playing
and gawk at his behavior.
In such manic moments he’d make anti-Semitic comments—just
like that. It always is just like that. The world for Billy was imperfect,
and the cause of his internal and external disarray, his discomfiture,
was the Jew! So the Jew is a worldwide plague, an irritant, viral, life’s
wrinkled, gnarled, and disfigured cause of psychic pain. What power we
Jews are given as we ride the razor’s edge of projection. We are the
UFOs of the last two thousand years, fear projected onto ETs “out
As Billy mouthed his slurs and vicious bromides, the others stood
by, did nothing. I cannot account for that. I believe I was more stunned
and stressed by this than by anything else—even Billy’s anti-Semitism.
I wanted us all to gang up on Billy, teach him a lesson. Not then, but
later on, I realized I was alone, alone in life as well. Only my singular
efforts would unfreeze the moment so that I could act on the world. My
feelings are retrospective—as I give them voice now, they would be
appalled at the lack of outrage, at the silence, at the bystanders who
merely watched, at the passivity when faced with Billy.
By then, thirteen, probably bar mitzvahed at the time, something
was in me, perhaps rearing, perhaps, in grandiose terms, I felt an El
Greco-like flame burn within, touch my soul, much like Shadrach,
Meschach, and Abendigo, before they entered the furnace. What was in
them before that made them so fearless? That is the question to ponder.
Perhaps, as I muse, almost fifty years later, in a spiky way I can say that
my gravestone might read: “I took Billy on.”
I went at the bastard, body heated, fists flying, at the goy, the prick,
the maligner, the inquisitor, the crusader, the Christian—he still is very
much the bastard, in mind. And he whacked the hell out of me while my
own brethren, for whatever reasons, stood about me. They didn’t even
urge me on—“Beat his ass, Matt; give it to him!” They were quiet. This
was a religious war in silence; I was no David slyly picking up the right
stones for his sling. This was outright violence, in your face—and very
personal. In my gut I knew, by then, it was not right to say these things
about Jews. Even then I had acquired from Hebrew school, I believe,
and from home, a Talmudic sense of right and wrong. I recall how the
prophets, at considerable risk to themselves, would come down from
the hills to confront and condemn the Jewish kings for misdeeds, adultery
and the like.
The message seemed that the truth is above all men; it is the highest
mark of civilization and of the individual human being. And I was,
apparently, deeply moved by this without my awareness of it. I was a
serious young boy.
I gave Billy as much as I could as he lambasted me. I was short and
I could only get at his lean abdomen. And I struggled away at that spot,
hoping that the head might fall, to no avail, as he seemed to shirk off
my blows. He was strong—and powerful; his long, sinewy, grappling
arms interrupted my puny but furious attempts as he methodically
smacked away at my upper torso and head. Lathering my face with
punches, he was also punching me into recognition of what life had in
store for me.
Needless to say, Billy wiped me away, pounding from his height
advantage, swinging downward with force, tattooing my cheeks with
fists, but I stood my ground and fought back—and hard—and took a
hard beating. What moves me now is that I didn’t cry. At that age
young boys can cry in such a situation. I didn’t cry. I was relentless, a
defender of the faith. I was repeatedly beaten, but I never lost a fight
with Billy. You see, this is an essential part of who I am. I chose this travail.
It enveloped me, like a malign cloud. And it is so painful. But I did
Ultimately my intense readings about ancient Jews taught me
moral courage in a sly and covert manner, call it conditioning, call it
indoctrination. They fortified me for life! I admired the antique courage
of the Hebrew heroes—Samson, David, Joshua, although Kirk and
Tony had no hold on my heart, alas. Only Churchill evinced that in
World War II, when he rallied the English in his radio speeches—I
remember hearing snippets on tape, how he said that the English would
fight the Nazis in the streets, in the doorways, in the alleyways, with
hand, with stick, and that they would never surrender. Stirring, is it not?
I had fears, free-floating, butterfly-huge fears in mind, but I was in
the right. Being right doesn’t mean you will win or overcome—or that
there is justice in the world. That there is no justice in the world has
been a lifelong premise. I deal with what is, my rescuer is me, and the
heritage I breathe. There are only strong individuals, sometimes in
alliance with other like-minded strong individuals. The world is in each
of us, not “out there.” “Out There” is a parade of illusions; inside is the
sound of a different drummer, playing a tattoo of character.
For weeks on end, before, during, or after these baseball games, I
fought Billy, but not to a draw. Oh, no, he whipped me well. I was
slaughtered, to be blunt. I got off the field, out of the dust and grime,
the offal of the Christian upon my presence, and headed home. I told no
one at home of my battle. I was self-contained. It was my mission. No
one said anything to me for our war had become as much a fixture of
the game as Billy’s constant snits. I was all alone—and I didn’t even
know it. At that age we are with emergence, not reflection. As I look
back, I have always been alone. Jews have always been alone, I knew
that, and I knew how they had drawn great strength from that. I also
knew it was the aloneness that gave them character. The Bible is rife
with battles in which Jews were few, outnumbered, and consequences
severe. It was their faith that became another army to enter the fray
with, the Host of Hosts by their spiritual side.
I remember well the beatings at Billy’s hands. I remember no one
helping. I remember my mother not knowing for weeks until somehow
she discovered all this and confronted Billy’s mother. After that, Billy’s
fits continued—but he censored himself.
After all these decades Billy is vivid in mind. What I feel now is the
potent feeling in all four volumes of the i Tetralogy, especially i. I will
not be mastered. I will not be depleted. I will keep coming at you until
you are no longer a concern or obstacle. Perhaps the casting for “Spartacus”
was brilliant; Douglas, the Jew, as the slave seeking freedom—
and dignity. It is how, as I look back, in my senior years, I face life, I
suppose—indomitably, I imagine. In my later years I have learned to
know no fear.
It is how I practice therapy. It is how I father. It is how I love. I am
Jonathan, at David’s side, metaphorically fighting off the Philistines.
To the day I die I will remember the unflinching intensity of my
response. I find it sadly ironic that my bravest moment in life came so
young. Now I am with words. But I did not cave in. I stood—I stood
alone, who I was as a human being, in my mind, at stake: as a Jew, on
line. I endured. I would not be abused, nor my people. I would not be
labeled in such ugly words. Billy was, sadly enough, my first real
encounter with the Christian world—and it was indelible.
As I look back through the decades I feel in my gut that my
brethren are due something from me, as a Jew, for they have given me
so much. I have no ancestors, for they are very alive and immediate in
me. It is in the nature—and order—of my own particular world, among
Jewry, that I respond to what has been shared with me, what has been
passed down to me. It is our tradition. The i Tetralogy is this Jew’s giving
back to his own people. It is not a debt repaid; it is a profound honor
to do so, one that moves me deeply.
This is an intricate and complex response, for as a writer and
human being beyond conditioning and ethnicity, I owe life a response
as well. It is much more than scratches in the sand to say I was here—
I seek not to stop time or build illusionary pyramids. As a writer I
respond because it is in my plasm to do so. I need to write about my
people as well as life responding to life. If forsythia can grow in nasty
abandonment and weedy ways along highway dividers, I, too, can
express myself as existence exuding its very presence.
My Judaism was the potting soil for my writing; my life’s peculiar
pain and agony also contributed to my need to make sense of this journey
I am on, without a roadmap, most definitely without a destination.
I have come to believe that all I have to give is my being, and writing
is my idiosyncratic body scent. Hunt for my spoor, if you will.
I am one of those souls Kazantzakis wrote his prayer for: “Overdraw
me Lord, and who cares if I break!”