The Eternal Feminine
Many years ago – it was our last evening in Paris – the first boy I loved told me that I had become, for him, “the eternal feminine.” Later I learned that his reference to Goethe’s Faust (whose “eternal feminine leads us above”) is by now formulaic in the French lexicon-for-lovers. At the time, however, it was very imprinting. After all, feminist formulas aside, isn’t “the eternal feminine” what every girl hopes to grow up to be?
This week I’ve been reading a novel by Dara Horn with the title, Eternal Life: A Novel, that is the most enthralling I’ve come across since … I don’t know when. Since before I cared about romance and boy/girl stuff and was devouring Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, which was about Mowgli, the kid who was raised in the jungle by wolves.
The heroine of Dara Horn’s novel is a girl – a woman? – named Rachel whose strange fate it is never to die. She’s about 2000 years old, but few in her world know it or ever knew it. She gets reconfigured in each generation so that, once again, she’s young enough to be marriageable, to have children, and to live a “normal” woman’s life.
The only trouble is, it’s far from normal, because she lives long enough to outlast – to bury – each generation of children that she has, each husband, and to outlive each milieu that she inhabits “normally.”
She’s Jewish. Did I mention that? Her first — and deepest – love was the son of the high priest in the days when the Second Temple still stood. They meet intermittently throughout the centuries. He shares her fate, for reasons I won’t disclose so as not to give away the plot.
Why am I enthralled by this story? You see, to be Jewish means belonging to an eternal people. Not eternal in the sense that (so far) they’ve outlasted their latest would-be annihilators. Rather the Jewish people’s “eternity” involves …
an unusual relation to time.
They are acculturated to see themselves as present-in-the-past as it unrolls. Century after century. Present at the foot of Mount Sinai when the covenant is sealed for the whole people. Present (and still grieving) when the First Temple falls. Present at the scene commemorated on the Arch of Titus in the city of Rome, when the sacred objects of the Second Temple were carried off by its conquerors and … you get the idea.
When my parents were newly married and on a trip to Rome, standing where they could look down at the Arch of Titus, they overheard two bearded Jews contemplating the scene below and saying, the one to the other,
“Well, there they are. But here we are.”
The Jewish continuity can be lived in many ways. To my mind, a common mistake would be to confuse the detritus – the debris — of history with its essence.
So what’s the essence? I have an idiosyncratic viewpoint. To me, romance is the essence. Adam and Eve? A romance, though a difficult one. Abraham and Sarah? Another pairing, with real-life difficulties. Jacob and his Rachel? Well, obviously a love story, despite all.
These are the Ur-Stories, bearing within themselves the eros of history: the Ur-Couples whose romantic difficulties are real – in that they are not supposed to be “transcended.” They are supposed to be lived through.
I think of God as the one
whose Witness allows us to
take our romantic lives