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The Importance of Repudiated Books

There was a German Jewish philosopher named Franz Rosenzweig who died of ALS at the age of 43 in 1929. The words on the very last page of his great work The Star of Redemption are printed to form an equilateral triangle pointing downward and at the downward point in all capital letters is written: INTO LIFE. Rosenzweig’s book has been a propulsive force in my life and still confronts me almost daily, darkly royal blue, cracked paper-spined back, tears and folds, curled post-its flowering over the top, six-pointed star over two lines illustrated on the bottom front cover like a belt-buckle holding the tattered thing together, on my bookshelf.

Nevertheless, for me it is a repudiated book. I have over time come to reject its premises and its claims. But there it is, now on my desk where I’m staring at it as I write. It is defiantly important to me, rejecting my rejection, intransigently affirmative. What kind of “importance” is this? What kind of importance persists in a thing that is repudiated? Is it merely that I maintain a sentimental attachment to it? Or is it that, like one’s memories, fantasies, and other thoughts, a person may carry things with him through life that cannot be justified or endorsed but are, even so, irrepressible and all important?      

It is worth remarking on the content of The Star, or at least how it first inhered in my self-understanding. When I read it for the first time as a college student, I read it as an argument for the viability of Jewish religious practice. I would have said: it invites its readers into a process through which a re-orientation is possible for the modern mind mired in skepticism; this re-orientation – more turning in a new direction than assenting to a claim – entails a returning to meaningful Jewish religiosity for the Jewish reader.  

Rosenzweig’s book facilitated in me that quintessentially modern procedure of rejecting skepticism so as to savor the vintage of ancient rituals and repudiated books. Yes, The Star is in its own way a book precisely about the importance of repudiated books. It addresses closed, archaic, dead books in order to open them, make them present, draw them back into life.

Later, as a graduate student, I started to read Rosenzweig more like a scholar. Whatever once made existential demands on me in The Star of Redemption was ultimately silenced by the objectivity of the scholarly pose. But I always read the same physical book: the same dark royal blue paperback edition that I bought in college. By now the text is covered with multiple strata of underlinings and notes, each recording a different moment in our relationship, reflecting shifts in my orientation, attention, attunement.

To be sure, scholarly orientation alone is not to blame for the most decisive change in my relationship with The Star. I also changed in other ways. Reasons seemed to mount, one on top of the other, finally to say that Rosenzweig’s claim to recover a commanding voice in long ago repudiated books was a romantic indulgence, implausible, an evasion of profound everyday life rather than an invitation into it. This, finally, is how The Star came to take its place among the repudiated books on my bookshelf.

And yet, when I started to think about the topic for my first blog post about the idiosyncratic things that count as sacred, inviolable, intrinsically good, profoundly important, in our everyday lives, I immediately thought of my old beat-up copy of The Star. Somehow it still makes demands on me. I have cleaned books from my bookshelves many times and my copy of The Star has never even been a candidate to sell off. In fact, when it does catch my eye I usually feel a bit sad, like it is not appropriately honored. I think to myself, maybe I should stand it on my desk between the bookends that hold my very small collection of rare books. The thought of losing it makes me sick to my stomach. To burn it or spit on it would be in some sense to harm me.   

Have I, then, overestimated the sense in which I have indeed rejected The Star? Or does it simply manifest the possibility that a thing may be no less sacred for being repudiated? Much in my life seems to have this quality – especially the Jewish aspect of my life, which seems to persist defiantly under the unrepudiable repudiated sign of The Star. So, however this feature of “importance” or “sanctity” works, it is certainly strong: it affects my decisions, my relationships with others, how I educate my child, what worries me when I read the newspaper, and much else.

And I will venture to suggest that it is this kind of importance that is primary for many people who would say that their “culture,” “tradition,” “religion,” “faith,” “heritage,” is important to them. What is primarily important is the importance that attaches to very specific things in that person’s idiosyncratic little world: not just a book, for instance, but a particular copy of a book passed down over generations, read at a crucial time in one’s life and always treasured, received as a gift from a mentor, or some such.

When a “religion,” “faith,” “tradition,” etc. is attacked, it is the vulnerable important things in our personal lives, the idiosyncratic things that are sacred to us, that lead us to take offense – to “take it personally.” It is these sacred things that make the bigger concepts (“my religion,” “my heritage”) important, not the other way around – even when these very things are otherwise repudiated. If this is right, then further understanding the importance of repudiated things is crucial to understanding how to respect others and what they care about.

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