Looking for a story to read at the start of 2023? Let me suggest the Book of Jonah, which is short and pithy and that can be interpreted in many different ways. It has helped me enormously over the course of my lifetime.
For the last year or so I’ve been writing my memoir, which I am calling “Inside the Whale.” It’s a follow-up to Out of the Whale published in 1974, soon after I turned 30 and wrongly assumed that my life was over. Also by 1974, it was clear that the Sixties, that wild era that swept across bedrooms, streets, suites and auditoriums like the Fillmore West and the Fillmore East, had come to a conclusion. I didn’t want it to end. Doris Lessing, the British novelist who declined to be an icon for the women’s liberation movement, had told me in 1969, “You know this can’t go on much longer. It’s a rare time in human history.”
At first, I thought I’d begin my new memoir, Inside the Whale, with the sentence, “Call me Jonah.” But then I remembered that Kurt Vonnegut — whom I met in person a few times in California and New York — beat me to the punch. Lessing had introduced me to Vonnegut’s fiction. The whole time I interviewed Vonnegut in New York, he smoked cigarettes on the steps outside his apartment and later sitting at his kitchen table. “I’m committing slow suicide,” he told me. Each to his own personal version of the apocalypse, I thought.
“Call me Jonah” are the three words that Vonnegut uses to begin Cat’s Cradle, published in 1962. The novel introduced me, his fans and followers to the concept of the Karass, a tribe of like minded individuals, and to “Ice-9,“ the ultimate weapon which can freeze water instantly and lead to the end of life on earth. 1962 was a grand year for the apocalypse. Murderous Soviet missiles were pointed at Yankee America.
In the Sixties, many of us hovered between the apocalypse, which would isolate and destroy us, and the Utopian tribe which would connect us and save us. Apocalypse looms as large now as it did when Cat’s Cradle was first published, though in 1962 the world really teetered on the brink of nuclear disaster. Now we have 21st century disasters on the horizon. My college roommates and I at Columbia in New York were afraid we were doomed to die before we put on black robes and graduated.
In fact, my name had doomed me from birth and long before the nerve-racking Cuban missile crisis. A fourth grade school teacher told me, “I’m so sorry your parents named you Jonah.” From her point of view, the Biblical Jonah brought bad luck to the sailors on a ship bound for Tarvish. To save themselves they had to toss him into angry waters. Good riddance. All Jonahs were bad luck, that teacher insisted.
She didn’t know or didn’t remember that the Book of Jonah is often read on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, perhaps the most solemn day on the Jewish Calendar. Perhaps she was so fixated on the New Testament that she didn’t realize that Jonah is an Old Testament prophet. Maybe she hadn’t actually read the Book of Jonah, but only heard about it and didn’t understand that the Biblical Jonah is a divine messenger and a compelling storyteller who describes his own journey, which takes away from his destination and toward his destination, and by land and by sea.
He says: “The engulfing waters threatened me/the deep surrounded me;/seaweed was wrapped around my head./ To the roots of the mountains I sank down;/the earth beneath barred me in forever./But you, Lord my God,/ brought my life up from the pit.” In a way, he’s a Zen Buddhist who comes to accept the unacceptable, and also a Beat poet who discovers that the way to beatitude is first to descend into darkness and discover solitude. A kind of universal everyman and a shapeshifter, Jonah is also a survivor.
It’s not surprising that in The Invention of Solitude, his autobiographical meditation, Paul Auster, the Jewish fiction and non-fiction writer, explores at length the Book of Jonah, which he connects to the story of Pinocchio. In The Invention of Solitude, Auster describes the adventures of a sentient wooden puppet who becomes a real boy, and to Gepetto, the artisan who creates him. Like Jonah, Pinocchio lives inside an underwater creature, though he’s not alone. Rather, he joins the company of Gepetto and liberates him. Carlo Collodi, the pen name of the Italian writer, Carlo Lorenzini, who created the puppet and Gepetto, longed for the liberation of Italy from oppression. His puppet hero is political.
Auster suggests that sending Jonah to Nineveh would be analogous to “a Jew being told to enter Germany during the Second World War and preach against Nationalist Socialists.” Ouch. I don’t know of any American Jews who returned to Germany where they were born and raised and who then railed against Hitler.
But I have known several German-born Jews who escaped from Germany and came to the US where they volunteered to serve in the military and were promptly dispatched to the country of their birth. They could speak and read and write German and they provided essential help to the Allied war effort. I think of those German-born Jews as Jonahs.
Auster reads The Book of Jonah as a moral tale. Almost everyone who writes about it does that. “if there is to be any justice at all, it must be a justice for everyone,” Auster writes. “No one can be excluded, or else there is no such thing as justice.” That sounds very 60ish. Near the thick of his interpretation of Pinocchio, Auster writes,” it is only in the darkness of solitude that the work of memory begins.” Perhaps so, though that sounds more like Isaac Bashevis Singer than any Sixties luminary.
When one lives in the darkness of solitude, as I have lived, it can feel impossible to begin to remember. In my solitude, I could not retrieve my past or envision a future and so I felt trapped in the present. Therapy and meds, which were unavailable to the Biblical Jonah, pulled me out of my misery. So did meditation and yoga and my own spirituality.
Like Paul Auster, I have read, reread and pondered the Book of Jonah, though I am not a Biblical scholar and don’t know Hebrew. Still, the book has felt like a mirror and Jonah my destiny. My aunt Lily, who was born in Czarist Russia and who came to the US with her parents, read the Book of Jonah to me when I was a boy, and the Book of Daniel to my brother Daniel.
I have come to regard the Prophet Jonah as one of the Bible’s iconic outsiders who apparently has no family, no friends and no community. If he does have a family, friends and a community that information isn’t included in the Old Testament. He’s an outcast among the sailors on the ship bound for Tar shish who toss him overboard, and an outcast and an outsider for the three days and three nights inside the whale, aka a leviathan.
Outside the walls of the ancient city of Nineveh, he’s also alone, which is how Rembrandt sketched him in 1655, outside of the walls of the city solitary and in prayer. In 1621, Pieter Lastman, also a Dutch artist, depicted Jonah and the Whale in a surreal and colorful painting. In 1866, the French artist Gustave Doré sketched Jonah preaching to the Ninevites. Through the ages, the prophet hasn’t lost his popular appeal. In fact, he’s probably more popular now than ever before with at least half-a-dozen picture books for kids in English and Hebrew.
J. R. R. Tolkien translated it from Hebrew to English. Others have turned Jonah into an early Christian. Tolkien himself sermonized in a New Testament way: “The real point is that God is much more merciful than ‘prophets,’ is easily moved by penitence, and won’t be dictated to even by high ecclesiastics whom he has himself appointed.”
In the Bible story, when the Nineveh citizens repent and God saves them, Jonah is alone once more, and alone again when a worm eats the root of the bush that provides shade. It withers and dies. Perhaps Jonah isn’t alone at all. After all, he communicates with God and God with him, Like Ishmael in Moby-Dick, the book in which Father Mapple, an ex-whaler, gives a sermon on Jonah, Jonah is a quintessential loner, a fugitive and a survivor.
“As sinful men,” Father Mapple says, “it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah.” Mapple adds, "As with all sinners among men, the sin of this son of Amittai was in his willful disobedience of the command of God--never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed--which he found a hard command.”
He concludes “Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appall! Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness! Woe to him who, in this world, courts not dishonour! Woe to him who would not be true, even though to be false were salvation! Yea, woe to him who, as the great Pilot Paul has it, while preaching to others is himself a castaway!"
The most difficult part of Father Mapple’s sermon is this: “if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves.” That’s what some psychotherapists today all “radical acceptance.”
It’s very challenging indeed to do that. I wonder if George Orwell succeeded in disobeying himself. In his long essay titled “Inside the Whale” he tells his readers, “Give yourself over to the world-process, stop fighting against it or pretending that you control it; simply accept it, endure it, record it. That seems to be the formula that "any sensitive novelist is now likely to adopt.” Orwell accepted the formula until he didn’t. In 1936 he went to Spain, a kind of Nineveh. He didn’t accept it but rather fought fascism and the communist emissaries of Stalin, too. That’s what Jonahs do. They go where they don’t really want to go, but know they have to go. What are you waiting for? Just go.