8. A Brief (Metaphorical) History of The Soul, Pt Five: The Soul as Wandering Jew

11631938793_b421a7d53f_kSo what has the untethered soul been doing for the last 368 years?

Most likely wandering. In that somewhat melancholy, accursed fashion of the myth of the Wandering Jew.

The standardised version of the story goes like this: a shopkeeper on the Via Dolorosa watches Jesus go by his doorstep weighed down by a cross. (Why do koans and Bible stories always sound like the beginnings of jokes?). Seeing how slowly and painfully Christ is moving -maybe blocking footfall to his business establishment?- the merchant Jew strikes the sentenced Jew on the back, urging him to go faster.

Jesus, with characteristic chippiness, drops some messianic voodoo on parting: “I go, but you will tarry until I return.”

This has been subsequently interepreted as: “I’m shifting my sorry ass out of here, but may you from henceforth onwards, wander the earth, nay even unto eternity, aching to be put out of your misery, but never achieving that goal.”

Wandering JewAlthough this myth has been around since the 13th Century, I find it interesting that it only really took off as a little anti-semitic meme in Europe round about the same time as Descartes was cogito-ergo-sum-cleaving soul from body, as we can see in this wildly popular 17th century ballad which describes how “the wicked Jew” who “despised God’s proffered Grace” now roams, like a 2nd millennium Adam with “no resting …/no Ease or Heart’s Content,/No House, no Home, no Dwelling-place” but only his “wandring forth…,/From Town to Town, in Foreign Lands,/with Grieved Conscience still, Repenting…”.

Martin Gardiner describes the phenomenon of the Wandering Jew in the 18th and 19th centuries as “a mania”: “a mania comparable to today’s manias for seeing UFOs, Abominable Snowmen, and Elvis Presley”. Something seismic must have been going on.

We, us soul-seekers, now find and hear that wandering soul’s existential predicament through the last three centuries of literature and art. We hear it in the nihilism of Elliot’s Wasteland:

12443213684_c7b2116962_zWhat are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.

In Nietzche’s Parable of the Madman:

“What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space?”

In Samuel Beckett (everywhere) but (ir)resolutely in the final passage of Texts for Nothing:

22936450505_077a092922_zTo be bedded in that flesh or in another, in that arm held by a friendly hand, and in that hand, without arms, without hands, and without soul in those trembling souls, through the crowd, the hoops, the toy balloons, what’s wrong with that? I don’t know, I’m here, that’s all I know, and that it’s still not me, it’s of that the best has to be made. There is no flesh anywhere, nor any way to die. Leave all that, to want to leave all that, not knowing what that means, all that, it’s soon said, soon done, in vain, nothing has stirred, no one has spoken. Here, nothing will happen here, no one will be here, for many a long day. Departures, stories, they are not for tomorrow. And the voices, wherever they come from, have no life in them.

And in Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, so many examples:

11966663685_54d84ef3ce_cI a soul, which perhaps is irrelevant when we consider the essence of things. There is an equal, abstract destiny for men and for things; both have an equally indifferent designation in the algebra of the world’s mystery….But there’s something else… In these languid and empty hours, a sadness felt by my entire being rises from my soul to my mind – a bitter awareness that everything is a sensation of mine and at the same time something external, something not in my power to change.”

The entire life of the human soul is mere motions in the shadows. We live in a twilight of consciousness, never in accord with whom we are or think we are.

I’m like a traveller who suddenly finds himself in a strange town, without knowing how he got there, which makes me think of those who lose their memory and for a long time are not themselves but someone else.

Sadly I write in my quiet room, alone as I have always been, alone as I will always be. And I wonder if my apparently negligible voice might not embody the essence of thousands of voices, the longing for self-expression of thousands of lives, the patience of millions of souls resigned like my own to their daily lot, their useless dreams, and their hopeless hopes. In these moments my heart beats faster because I’m conscious of it. I live more because I live on high. I feel a religious force within me, a species of prayer, a kind of public outcry. But my mind quickly puts me in my place…

howlspanBut we also catch glimpses of the Wandering Jew in various subcultures, where the soul finds people with some kind of affinity or interest in her plight. Such as in our fascination with Shamanism, Psychedelia, the Beat Generation, Alcoholics Anonymous, Hippies, Ravers, Deadheads, New Agers, Psychoanalysts.

It’s also in postmodernism’s craving for the annulment of the subject, in the Western-buddhist’s craving for the annulment of the self, in the drum and rattle of all altered states of consciousness: the soul unleashed, chased, through the hills and valleys of Tibet, on the Santiago de Compostela, the Haj, searching for non-differentiation, unity, solidarity (political, or otherwise), always searching.


We also find it in the touristic simulacra of the internet, this screen right here that stands between you and me, souls searching, reaching out, to everyone-anyone for everything-anything, please, right here and now, travelling at speeds of up to 1.4 terabits per seconds; every throbbing second shot through with the pain of the Wandering Jew, the nostalgic desire to return to a primordial time and place, an existential Eden, before soul and body were twixt asunder, before we were cast out into this mess of Mu.

Mixed up with this, at least for me, is a geographical diaspora of my Ashkenazi “family”, from their Levantine origins as far back as 733 BC,  later dispersed through Central and Eastern Europe to Poland, to Russia, to Lithuania, to Germany. Then south again, to South Africa in the 20th Century. To England, Italy, Rome, California, my own wandering Jew wanderings, and now here, on this island where it is raining once again, where I sit in this so-called summer house writing for you, Max, close to the radiator, feet propped up on a hot water bottle, you in your washing-up bowl bed next to me.


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