J. Skibell, A Curable Romantic (Chapel Hill, Algonquin Books: 2010).*
What if Freud were wrong? – Freud taught us that patients suffering from hysteria sometimes develop “a more or less highly organized rudimentary second consciousness, une condition seconde,” and that certain hysteric symptoms are the result of projection of this second state into the body. Freud’s insights eventually led to the recognition that severe trauma leads to psychological splitting and, in extreme cases, to multiple personality disorder, a state in which a person can manifest one or more additional personalities, each of which needs to be treated. – But, what if Freud were wrong? What if the “other” personality were a dybbuk, one of those unfortunate souls that is doomed to wander between heaven and hell after death?
Esperanto was an artificial, universal language created by Ludovik Zamenhof. He intended Esperanto to serve as the common language of all humankind and, hence, to unite all humanity in a bond of brotherhood and peace. It didn’t work out that way. The Esperanto movement splintered and Europe rushed headlong toward World War II. – But what if Zamenhof were right? What if the “inner idea” of Esperanto had matured into a messianic movement of humanity toward a better age?
And what if Rabbi Kalonymos Szapira, a Hasidic rabbi in the depths of the Warsaw Ghetto during the shoah, were right? That God owed it to the Jewish people to relieve their suffering? And, that the task of the Jew is to state that, to God?
Joseph Skibell takes on these questions in his new novel, A Curable Romantic. He makes the milieu of each of these characters come to life with vivid writing, moving the central figure, Jakob Sammelsohn, from an East European shtetl to fin de siŹcle Vienna and Paris, then back to Warsaw, only to end in the Warsaw Ghetto. In the course of this voyage, Sammelsohn encounters the “other” side of Freud (cocaine use), the weakness of Zamenhof, and the theological madness of Szapira, as well as the undercurrent of antisemitism, from Dreyfus to nazism. To catch this polyglot society, Skibell uses six languages and three alphabets.
As an experienced novelist, Skibell also gives his central figure several female complements, a love story with erotic and anti-erotic moments, and several dominant men figures. The quick pace of the well-written narrative adds drama to the vivid descriptions.
Skibell is a master of what can only be called “kabbalistic fiction,” the genre of angels and dybbuks, of magic names and kabbalistic speculations. One thinks of Singer’s Satan in Goray or of Chagall’s ghetto figures floating upside down over a shetl that is burning. Skibell is also a master of the story in which doubting modernity wrestles with these poetic, otherworldly visions. So much so that the reader wonders who is more mad -- Sammelsohn and his dybbuk or Freud and his theories, Zamenhof and his linguistic messianism or Sammelsohn and his erotic difficulties, Szapira and his covenantal theology or Sammelsohn and his wrestling with the angels of death. Skibell’s first book, A Blessing on the Moon, showed his talent; A Curable Romantic guarantees his place among the masters.
David R. Blumenthal
Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies
Emory University, Atlanta, GA
* Reviews in Religion and Theology, 1 (2013) 127-28.