In The Golem: How He Came Into the World (Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam), a German silent film from 1920, a rabbi molds the eponymous humanoid out of clay and animates it through an amulet containing a scrap of parchment written with a magic word.
The amulet, in the shape of a five-pointed star, is planted in the middle of the golem’s chest — the same spot occupied by the power pack that keeps Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, alive.
I checked out The Golem (co-directed by Paul Wegener and Carl Boese, with Wegener playing the golem) after viewing The Golem of Ridgewood, an installation of film, sculpture, painting and whatnot that ran through March 11th at Valentine, a gallery in Ridgewood, Queens, just steps over the Bushwick border. (More on the installation itself in “The Golem Next Door, Part 2.”)
Given the dizzying timeline of almost-entirely-true facts laid out by Matt Freedman, the installation’s mastermind, which is posted on the gallery’s website as a textual backdrop for the show, some independent investigation into historical contexts and artistic antecedents seemed in order.
What I found most remarkable about The Golem, a Weimar-era film dealing with the theme of Jewish persecution thirteen years before the Reichstag fire, was how evenhandedly it dispensed its cynicism, treating Jews and gentiles alike as grotesques and fools.
Cynicism, as Freedman points out in his timeline for The Golem of Ridgewood, comes from kynikos (“doglike”):
Diogenes, a founder of Cynic philosophy … [believed that] human beings live artificially and hypocritically, while dogs live in the present, free from anxiety. Humans dupe others or are duped, but dogs will give an honest bark at the truth.
That the common understanding of the word “cynical,” which equates it with “sardonic” and “self-serving,” casts the philological evolution of the “honest bark of truth” in a fairly negative light. Did the earnest and direct kynikos turn cynical – we may ask – because truth is ugly nine times out of ten?
The tales told throughout the history of arts and letters would seem to say so; the eternal conflict between the cynical and the quixotic, the world-weary and the naïve, almost always ends up with the ingenuous party either chastened or dead.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818, turns on the pointed contrast between a complex and deluded man of science and his scorned and guileless creature. As Freedman’s timeline notes:
Shelley’s novel is interpreted, in ensuing decades, as a metaphor for the dangerously hubristic achievements of science, as well as the plight of various oppressed groups, including American slaves, the starving Irish, and the English lumpenproletariat. Less well-known is a reading of Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster as “the goyische golem,” sometimes called “the Mad Jew in the Attic.”
The rabbi who sculpts the golem and then endows it with life follows the playbook set out in the Bible, in which “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.”
Dr. Frankenstein’s monster was created from inert matter of another ilk, awkwardly sewn into a corporeal pastiche. The key to life for both is a form of secret knowledge, enshrouded within a mystical rite or buried inside the immutable laws of science.
In both The Golem: How He Came Into the World and Frankenstein, the creature’s downfall, like Adam’s, begins with self-awareness. Rather than mope off into exile, as Adam exited Eden, the golem and Frankenstein’s monster run amok, wreaking vengeance on their creators for burdening them with unbidden life.
In contrast, Iron Man conjures his technological exo-golem (encasing it around his failing body) following a violent near-death experience. After he is kidnapped and critically injured, billionaire industrialist Tony Stark (played in the movie adaptations by Robert Downey, Jr.) realizes, in a spike of self-awareness, the depth of his culpability in the havoc wrought by the weaponry that was his company’s stock-in-trade. His subsequent identity as Iron Man is an attempt at redress and redemption.
The golem, whose legend goes back to mid-16th-century Prague (here I’m again citing Freedman’s timeline), also encased its body in armor, and of a particular vintage. In Freedman’s account:
Pogroms rage through the streets. Chief Rabbi Judah Leow ben Bexalel, anxious to protect his people, sculpts a golem from clay and brings it to life by writing the names of G-d on the figure’s forehead – or, alternatively, on a slip of paper placed in its mouth, or in its shoe. Rabbi Leow … deems it propitious to kit out his creation in armor proven on the bodies of two famous warriors, one pagan [Achilles] and the other Christian [Richard the Lionhearted]. In fact, however, only the helmet of Achilles now survives in the royal treasury. Leow somehow secures it for his golem.
The concept of the golem as a proto-superhero isn’t lost on Freedman, whose work I didn’t know before this show, and who happened to be in the gallery on the morning I visited. With an offhand mention of the “two Jewish kids [Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster] who came up with Superman” in 1932, he noted that the legend of the golem faded in the second half of the 20th century with the rise of the Israeli army. A lone, indestructible protector was no longer required.
As background to this thought, Freedman sent me an article titled “Golem as Gentile, Golem as Sabra: An Analysis of the Manipulation of Stereotypes of Self and Other in Literary Treatments of a Legendary Jewish Figure” by Danusha V. Goska, published in New York Folklore in 1997. While reviewing previous scholarly approaches to the subject, Goska notes that the rabbi’s creation of the golem “has been described as a rapture that brings one closer to God.”
Which brings me to the stepwise progression from the golem to Frankenstein’s monster to Iron Man (the hindmost being my interpolation off of Freedman’s storyline) and its relationship to the history of the art object in Western culture.
The golem is made of clay, its material integrity of a piece with the 16th century’s prevailing God-centered worldview. In keeping with the era’s unitary compact between art and society, the artist endowed the object with a set of recognizable meanings. The artwork was not viewed as a receptacle for its creator’s obsessions, but as a medium for veneration, glorification and memory. Despite the social, religious and political complexities roiling Renaissance Europe, it was still a time of the innocent eye.
Frankenstein’s monster, conceived at the moment the Enlightenment gave way to Romanticism, is a carved-up dead thing, brought to life by the same powers of reason that rewarded its disciples with the Reign of Terror.
It is also the beginnings of the modernist paradigm, riven by alienation and doubt, ushered in by the late work of Francisco Goya (1746–1828), whose charnel-house Disasters of War (1810-1814) preceded the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and whose Black Paintings (1819-1823) directly followed it (and how better to visualize Shelley’s creature than to turn to “Saturn Devouring One of his Sons” (1820-1823)?)
During the Renaissance and after, through the psychodramas of Caravaggio (c. 1571–1610), the excesses of the Baroque and the cool contemplation of Neoclassicism, the philosophical separation remained intact between the object and the artist: the subject was the subject and the author was the author. Caravaggio aside, the tormented artist was not yet a cliché.
Romanticism’s loss of faith in the Enlightenment (Frankenstein’s monster is a product of science but also an abomination of it) also loosened the bonds of artistic tradition: what was handed down from master to apprentice could no longer be taken at face value. It was dead matter unearthed by the psychological exigencies of the artist, pieced together in strips and shards and animated through the shock of the new.
This is a deeply intimate and grueling process in which the dead parts must be personally chosen, manipulated and fused together, and with explicit sexual overtones (as piqued and parodied in the ludicrously gory Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (1973, aka Flesh for Frankenstein, directed by Paul Morrissey), where Udo Kier, in the title role, sinks his forearms into the guts of a fresh female cadaver).
Now that we’ve reached the 21st century, it is difficult to draw the line where self-awareness ends and global awareness begins. All traditions are fair game — avant-garde, elitist and pop — unleashing unprecedented artistic freedoms (superheroes all, we slip the chains of gravity).
No wonder that “A person loved me” (2012), Adrián Villar Rojas’s gigantic clay sci-fi golem lumbering astride the fourth floor elevators in the New Museum’s Triennial, feels so utterly now. But not everything — especially that which falls under the rubric of Biennial Art — possesses that sculpture’s commanding compaction of influences.
To escape the pull of gravity also means courting the negligible, the arbitrary, the over-explained, the passionless and the perfunctory. It encases the artistic process, once smeared with mud and blood, inside a protective steel shell, self-illuminated with colorful blips and cascading transmission streams.
No longer writ with the names of G-d or infused with Jovian lightning, the digital-age golem, detached from history, nationality and race, floats freely across clouds of socio-political-economic information, glowing with life until its contextual fuel cell burns out.
Tomorrow: the golem comes to Ridgewood.
Matt Freedman’s The Golem of Ridgewood closed on March 11 at Valentine Gallery (464 Seneca Avenue, Ridgewood, Queens).