11 December 2011

The Distorted Sequence

Aristotle's Poetics 5:6
"Defective Plots"

Of simple plots and actions, the episodic ones are the worst.  By the episodic plot, I mean the one in which the sequence of episodes is neither necessary nor probable.  Second-rate poets compose plots of this kind of their own accord; good poets do so on account of the actors--in writing pieces for competitive display they draw out the plot beyond its potential, and are often forced to distort the sequence.

This is a whole philosophy in some aspects of Jewish life today, a well-heeled practice for more than a decade.  Since the mid-1990s, much of the venture capital of Jewish life has been invested in creating "one-off" Jewish experiences, in order to light the spark of interest in (especially) young Jews.  The goal:  a good time.  The hoped for result?  A return customer.  One might make the mistake of blaming our increased deficit of attention, caused by our gadgets and desire for the immediacy of connection to everything and everyone.  Aristotle reminds us that an episodic way of thinking pre-dates the very tools of immediacy that exacerbate the long-practiced human propensity for the "one-off," or, as the kids like to say today, the "random."

Episodic:  from the Greek.  On the way.  By the by.  While you're on the way to this, why not do that?

Of interest, Aristotle's argument contrasts with Jacob's experience while fleeing his brother Esau.  Exhausted and traumatized, he rests on the desert floor, sleeps upon a rock, and dreams of angels going up and down a ladder.  When he arises he exclaims, "God was in this place and I didn't know it."  One could argue that without least expecting it, Jacob discovers that God is present.

This is an important spiritual idea.  It means that one can experience spiritual enlightenment even when we are not looking for it.  And as Jacob's predicament demonstrates, we can find the presence of the Divine when we are desperate, in flight, running away not only from an external threat but from ourselves.  There is truth and comfort in this.

On the other hand, as we might know from the story, Jacob has a long way to go.  He must continue to grow, to plow into the motivations and inherent contradictions of this very being before he can emerge whole, and years later, face his brother again (with no small amount of fear and dread) before realizing that reconciliation is possible.

That is to say, let's not over-inflate the episodic.  It may light a spark; it may not.  In either case, one must conclude that with or without the occasionally fortuitous occurrence of what we might call a "Jewish good time," we are left with the hard slog of work, or, in Jewish language, עבודה.

עבודה  a word connotative of work; worship; and devotion to the Source of All Life. 

With regard to this notion of sequence, it's important for us to acknowledge that there is a sequence to the Jewish narrative--from creation to redemption; from the beginning and origins of all time to the final realization of the strived for perfection of a just world at peace. 

And so, therefore: on occasion, "good poets do so on account of the actors--in writing pieces for competitive display they draw out the plot beyond its potential, and are often forced to distort the sequence."

People do good work out there, creating "episodic" Jewish experiences.  What would be an interesting conversation would be around the question of the degree to which such experiences "distort the sequence" of the narrative.

Is the narrative whole?  If not, what of it does remain?  Do we all agree on its general principles?

Despite my own increasing distaste for the "episodic," these essential questions still disturb my sleep.


Josh Leifer said...


To what degree can we consider a five week summer program in Israel an episodic Jewish experience?

Andy Bachman said...

Answer your own question: How much learning and praying and arguing about Israel have you done since?