Internationally renowned novelist Harry Mulisch's The Procedure is a haunting and fascinating novel about two men who try to create life but fail. In the late sixteenth century, Rabbi Jehudah Löw, in order to guarantee the safety of the Jews in Prague, creates a golem by following a procedure outlined in a third-century cabalist text. Four hundred years later, Victor Werker, a Dutch biologist mourning the loss of his stillborn daughter, causes an international uproar when he creates a complex organic clay crystal that can reproduce and has a metabolism. But his unsettling discovery takes its toll as his inner and outer demons pursue him around the world, from California to Venice, Cairo, and Jerusalem.
The Procedure, Chapter One
So cleverly did his art conceal its art
P. Ovidius Naso,
yes, of course I can come straight to the point and start with a sentence like: The telephone rang. Who's ringing whom? Why? It must be something important, otherwise the file wouldn't open with it. Suspense! Action! But I can't do it that way this time. On the contrary. Before anything can come to life here, we must both prepare ourselves through introspection and prayer. Anyone who wants to be swept along immediately, in order to kill time, would do better to close this book at once, put the television on, and sink back on the settee as one does in a hot foam bath. So before writing and reading any further we're going to fast for a day, and then bathe in cool, pure water, after which we will shroud ourselves in robes of the finest white linen.
I've switched the telephone and the front doorbell off and turned the clock on my desk away from me; everything in my study is waiting for the events to come. The first luminous words have appeared in the ultramarine of the computer screen, while outside the dazzling, setting autumn sun shines over the square. From the blazing western sky tram rails stream like molten gold from a blast furnace; between the black trees cars appear from the chaos, disappear into it, people walk at the tips of shadows that are yards long. From the position of the sun in my room I can see what time it is: the light is falling diagonally, it's six o'clock, rush hour, for most people the day's work is over.
The origin of man was a complicated affair. Much of it is still obscure, not only in biological, but also in theological circles. In the Bible, indeed, this creature is actually created twice, and to a certain extent three times. Genesis 1:27 tells us that on the sixth and last day of creation the following happened: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them." So there were two of them; immediately afterward God says: "Be fruitful, and multiply." So the man was Adam, but the woman wasn't Eve, because the primeval mother of us all saw the light of day only later, when the week of creation was long since over; she wasn't created separately, but came forth from a rib of Adam's. The latter was very pleased about this, because in Genesis 2:23 he declares: "This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh." At last! This also shows that Eve was his second wife. But what about the first? Who was she? Fortunately experts have been able to ascertain this: Lilith.
Very self-assured, because created just as independently as Adam, she did not wish to subordinate herself to him. Consequently the rift between them centered on the manner of "reproduction": she was reluctant to be the party underneath. Another element in their conflict over sexual technicalities may have been the fact that Adam was already carrying Eve and so at that stage must have been a rather effeminate type. The row flared up in any case and Lilith finally did something terrible: she cursed. That is, she spoke the ineffable, seventy-two-letter name of JHVH, instantly turned into a demon and flew off. Immediately JHVH sent the angels SNVJ, SNSNVJ, and SMNGLPH in pursuit, who intercepted her over the Red Sea. But they couldn't eliminate her. Ever since, she has preyed on single men and strangled children in childbirth. In brief, in every respect Lilith is the opposite of the later Eve, the primeval mother, who through her creation finally made a real man of Adam.
But by that time-after the week of creation, that is-this Adam had been created for the second time. Anyone who still owns a Bible (otherwise he should just look in a bedside table at the nearest hotel), can read in Genesis 2:7: "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." The difference between this and the first time is that we are now given some concrete details, but too little to be able to make use of it for ourselves. Fortunately there are other sources besides the Bible. Over the centuries, without distinction between the first and second creation of Adam, a number of scholars have reconstructed the course of events on the sixth and last day of creation from hour to hour, but the timetables they have presented differ. According to one of them Adam appeared in JHVH's thoughts in the first hour. In the second hour JHVH discussed his brainwave with the cabinet of archangels. Some of them thought it a good idea, others were opposed; but while the angels were still debating and squabbling, in the third hour JHVH began collecting red, black, white, and brown earth. This was, of course, not just any old dust, but the finest dust from all corners of the earth, and particularly from the spot where subsequently the Temple of Solomon was to arise. In the fourth hour, using the purest water, he kneaded it into clay. In the fifth hour he formed Adam's body. In the sixth hour he made a golem of him, an "earth germ": an entity that was no longer inorganic, but was not yet a human being either. In the seventh hour, on the same Temple Mount where so many memorable events were later to take place, he breathed a soul into the embryonic creature, after which in the eighth hour he finally set Adam ("Earth") in Paradise, where the latter showed himself capable of speech by giving names to the animals: "chimpanzee," "orangutan..."
In heaven the archangels were meanwhile still quarreling about the desirability of man, but JHVH said, "Why are you still talking? He has already been created." He seems to have had other problems with his ministers for that matter, because according to some sources Adam was initially as large as the whole universe, which they saw as a threat. Thereupon God reduced him to more moderate, although still gigantic proportions. Only after the fall did he and his Eve acquire the dimensions still customary today.
In this way we learn more and more. I myself am-professionally-curious to know further details about that mysterious sixth hour. What did JHVH actually get up to in it? Intermediate stages, origins, decay, twilights, metamorphoses, are always more interesting than what's already there, is not yet there, or is no longer there. The transition in the seventh hour from organic matter to man through the divine breath of life is less essential than the transition from dead to living matter in the sixth hour. The difference between an amoeba and a human being is less than that between a crystal and an amoeba, because in the latter case the difference is almost 100 percent. (Almost? Not 100 percent? What then? 99.999...percent? Patience!) So that during that transition, in the sixth hour, something really fundamental happened. What exactly?
I have great news. In the virtually endless twists and turns of Scripture there is a piece of writing that tells us something about this: Sefer Yetsirah, The Book of Creation. It was written in Hebrew, presumably in about the third century in Palestine, by an anonymous Jewish neo-Pythagorean, and is the complete antithesis of what is regarded at the end of the twentieth century as a readable text. I doubt whether at this moment more than a hundred people in the entire world are poring over that mysterious book; it's rather like a secret, metaphysical royal chamber in the pyramid of the written word. For that matter, "book" is too grand a word; it consists of six short chapters, divided into eighty-one sections, all in all less than two thousand words, that is, scarcely five A4 sheets. I must confess that this fills me with immeasurable jealousy: five A4 sheets! Since quantity is also quality, every writer wants to write a book of a thousand pages-but a treatise of five pages, which has been studied for century after century, has been followed by innumerable commentaries, and has still not yielded up its secret, that goes a step further.
The text concludes with the statement that Abraham also studied the book and understood it, thereby becoming in creative terms virtually the equal of God; the rest of humankind could not make even a mosquito among them. In the Middle Ages people who should know added that initially he devoted himself to study in solitude, but then suddenly he heard the voice of JHVH-the real author-and was told that no one could understand Sefer Yetsirah by himself, there must be two of you. For this purpose Abraham chose his teacher Shem, the son of Noah. This rule, that there should be two, still applies to the present day, so that suits us well because there are two of us too, you and I.
Listen. Of course you know that the world and Adam were created by the word-but how that worked technically can only be read in the mysterious manual that JHVH himself used and therefore dates from before creation. In it linguistic creation is not taken figuratively, as usually happens, but-with the inexorable consistency of Judaic mysticism-literally.
Because words consist of letters, as molecules consist of atoms, we must focus attention on the elementary components' building blocks: the twenty-one letters of the Hebrew alphabet, called "othioth." Because don't forget that the world was created in Hebrew; it wouldn't have been possible in any other language, least of all Dutch, whose spelling will not be settled until heaven and earth pass away. To make a distinction I call that exalted othioth the "alephbeth": Aleph [ý], Beth [·], Gimel [’], Daleth [“], He [”], Waw [Â], Zayin [Ê], Heth [Á], Teth [Ë], Yod [È], Kaph [Î], Lamed [Ï], Mem [Ì], Nun [•], Samekh [Ò], 'Ayin [Ú], Pe [Ù], Sadhe [–], Qoph [—], Resh [¯], Shin [˜], Taw [™]. It consists exclusively of consonants. The aleph and the 'ayin are also consonants. For example the aleph is not the sound "a" but a hard click in the throat, as one makes when one suddenly cuts or burns oneself, the so-called glottal stop, for which, according to philologists, one should imagine having a fish hook thrown into one's throat which is immediately jerked back. Those consonants form the visible body of the words-the vowels are their soul and hence invisible. Or rather: TH VWLS R THR SL ND HNC NVSBL.
The first chapter concerns the "thirty-two hidden paths of wisdom": the mysterious, "infinite numbers without anything" from 1 to 10 plus the 22 letters. JHVH himself is 1, the 22 letters he derived "with mud and clay," from 2 and 3; only 4 gives birth to the heavens and the angels. Then he took the three most important letters (A, M, SH: the "three mothers"), which under the dominance of the numbers 5 to 10 as height, depth, east, west, north, and south he sealed with permutations of his ineffable name JHV, JVH, HJV, HVJ, VJH, and VHJ. There is no more talk of numbers, only of letters.
To give you an impression, I will now show you in confidence the second chapter of JHVH's instruction manual:
1. Twenty-two letters: three mothers, seven double, and twelve simple. Three mothers A, M, SH, their foundation: the scale of merit and the scale of guilt, and the tongue is a moving hand between those two. Three mothers A, M, SH: M is mute, SH sibilant, and A brings the two into equilibrium.
2. Twenty-two letters, he designed them, carved them out, weighed them, combined and transposed them, each with all; with them shaped the whole of creation and everything that remained to be created.
3. Twenty-two letters: three mothers, seven double, and twelve simple; they have been designed in the voice, shaped in the air, and put in five places into the mouth. The letters A, H, CH, AJ in the throat, G, J, K, Q, on the palate, D, L, N, T on the tongue, Z, S, TS, R, SH, on the teeth, B, V, M, PHe on the lips.
4. Twenty-two letters, they are put into a circle like a wall with two hundred and thirty-one gates. The circle can turn forward or backward, and its sign is this: nothing surpasses AJ N G (= "contentment"), in goodness and nothing surpasses N G AJ (= "disaster") in evil.
5. How did he combine, weigh, and transpose them? A with all others and all others with A, B with all others and all others with B, G with all others and all others with G, and they all return in a circular form to the exit through two hundred and thirty-one gates, and so it is that the whole of creation and all language arises from one name.
6. He created something from nothing and made the non-being into a being; and he fashioned great columns from intangible air. This is the sign: he beheld, spoke, and produced the whole of creation and all things from one name, the sign of which is twenty-two things in one body.
That one name, from which everything originates, is therefore the ineffable name of God: the tetragrammaton JHVH. In the four remaining chapters everything is given birth to in space and time through obscure combinations and permutations by the "three mothers," the "seven double," and "twelve simple," with countless correspondences among nature, the human body, and the year.
The Book of Creation is the loftiest ode to writing ever written.
—Reprinted from The Procedure by Harry Mulisch by permission of Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002, Harry Mulisch All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
"Sharply imagined, vivid, and often funny." —The Washington Post
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