Saturday, January 26, 2008

Divinity School: Ilona Karmel's Bible

Tomorrow, January 27, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This date marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. I hardly need a designated day to remember my friend, Ilona Karmel; she was the only person I've known whose balance was such that I could do something, or not do it, simply by asking what she would have done. Still, I miss her especially on such days, and hope these remarks at her memorial service, delivered in the winter of 2001, will mean something to others.

Ilona Karmel died on December 13, 2000. She was supposed to have died in the Krakow ghetto, or in the Plashow death camp, or when a retreating Wehrmacht half-track ran her down, crushing her legs and killing her mother; but instead she lived, came to Radcliffe, graduated and wrote a novel, then married and, as fate would have it, wound up working in a Munich orphanage, where she began another novel, which she published back in Boston in 1969, eventually teaching longer fiction in the MIT Writing Program, which is where I met her in 1980.

To say this was love at first sight is not to say much. Ila had a heart like a street-car—so I was told by the guarded (and somewhat envious) colleague who introduced us—and I was new to Boston and an orphan to boot. Ila was also the most immediately inviting person I had ever encountered, probing and candid and big-sisterly. She seemed to say, “I have no patience for mere acquaintances, so this first talk is actually an audition for a life-long friendship,” and I left her home raw and exhilarated. I would soon learn that Ila had no patience either for any great show of admiration for her, so writing now about how she helped some of us with God, of all things, feels pretty reckless. “Nu, come on!,” Ila would scoff, implying self-effacement, but not really meaning it, wanting, not less honor, but more scrutiny, which no human being could stand too much of, let alone God. Only children were perfect—and not past 18.

Ila enjoyed telling the story, which I always took to be the first class of her little divinity school, that when she was interviewed for the MIT position, one member of the search committee, a celebrated political columnist, noticed she had taught most recently at a day care center. “Why don’t you apply for another job teaching toddlers?” he challenged her. “Because I am not good enough,” she coolly replied. But this was no joke, actually. The premise that she was not good enough, not innocent, was always just beneath the surface of her conversation. She loved Dostoyevsky, she loved Robin Williams, she loved anybody, in whom she detected the kind of self-doubt that could lead somewhere. This made her a natural teacher of writing; and she was notorious among Program faculty for spending hours in private conferences with students on days she was not teaching, especially black and Asian students, whom she called, simply, de stoodents, pronouncing the word with a reverence I found a little affected at first, suspecting (since she had published almost nothing since 1969, her great and then neglected novel, An Estate of Memory) that her devotion to them might be something of a cover for frustrated literary ambition.

But her talent for self-doubt went, perversely, in another direction. During the many hours we spoke on the phone about our drafts, or moved from course to creamy course at one of her dinner parties, or rode home in my car, gossiping about my (failing) tenure case, I can hardly recall a moment with Ila that did not entail some kind of religious perception. I do not mean religious dogma, though the literature of Judaism and Christianity formed some kind of boundary around her. Nor do I mean a transcendental perception, which was the closest her husband Hans (the physicist, Francis Zucker) would ever let himself get to religion; for him, homage was compelled by abstract perception, formal and faultless, like Goethe's theory of color, whose mathematical expression fit, thrillingly, with sensuous nature. Ila cherished this world of his, but when she used the word God, something less sublime and more personal was at stake.

Rather, Ila had what William James called, with great awe and greater irony, a “sick soul.” She had questions that, if you outlast their driving you crazy, leave you shaken and grateful. Why be good? What is death? Does matter matter? A part of what made being with Ila so compelling was the sense you had that nobody had a greater reason to ask such questions or a greater purchase on the claim not to have been defeated by them. She loved the mystery of her own hope. She loved your faults if you were brave about them. Her fascination with things was rarely scholastic, her wry wit rarely cynical, her generosity rarely forced. It wasn’t that such impulses—scholasticism, cynicism, cunning—were beneath her. They just weren’t as interesting as a world going wrong because of sincerity.

More - Read the whole eulogy...

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have read it. I am not sure I understand everything though. I shall re-read it.

Andrew Schamess said...

Very moving.

It's interesting and sad that we often say the most profound things about life, when talking about someone who has died.

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Anonymous said...

Bernard,
I'm a Christian, a Salvation Army officer, who has found your memorial tribute to Ilona Karmel to be riveting. I wish I had known her. I wish I could have spoken with her for a long time on a quiet, reflective evening. I think my appreciation for life,my respect for perseverance, for quiet heroism would be so much more after having been with her. So many quotable things, such as "You have scars, but no wounds"!

I simply want to thank you for posting this on your blog. I followed one internet thread to another, and came upon this unparalleld gem. Thank you.

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