You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Crooked Heart

Two mittel-European Jewish doctors born in the 1850s, three years apart: one was Viennese, the other was from Warsaw. One trafficked in disenchantment, calling religion an “illusion” tantamount to “neurosis”; the other was a visionary, insisting that religion be the essence of modernity, not its nemesis. One invented the talking cure, or psychoanalysis; the other invented… another kind of talking cure, a lingvo internacia or, as it came to be called, Esperanto. And both Sigmund Freud and Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof stand in as the charismatic and daunting Jewish fathers for the Zelig-like hero of Joseph Skibell’s brilliant new novel.           

It’s a high-energy, wild performance, as ample as its protagonist’s appetites; the postmodern Jewish novel as mash-up of genres: Yiddish folktale, sentimental education, Freudian case history, erotic confession, utopian parable, all wrapped up in an “alternative history” of Jewish emancipation, haunted by the figure of Dreyfus and intoxicated with the heady pleasures of the Esperanto tongue. And toward the end, the novel becomes a metaphysical jeu d’esprit that is perversely naturalistic, superbly comic, and in the bargain, heartrending.          

The novel opens in a theater in Vienna in 1894, where a young ophthalmologist named Jacob Sammelsohn catches sight of a lovely ingénue. She is Emma Eckstein; the Emma Eckstein, whose botched nasal surgery by Freud and William Fliess in 1895 brought her close to death. Eckstein’s hysteria, which Freud famously attributed to “excessive masturbation” (what is the proper amount of masturbation?), turns out to be a case of possession by a dybbuk: the itinerant spirit of Ita, the bride that Sammelsohn abandoned back in his native Galicia.

Dybbuks, we learn, are spirits who make a fatal choice in the afterlife: they turn away from the fiery embrace of the divine, taking refuge in earthly forms. They exist, as the subtitle of Shlomo An-Sky’s classic play The Dybbuk suggests, “between two worlds,” which also describes the predicament of Sammelsohn himself. The son of a cranky authoritarian Jew so pious that only the holy tongue could pass his lips (and who gives sex education in a farrago of scriptural quotes), Sammelsohn had been married off at thirteen. To his delight, his child-bride proved game and open-minded, but once he was discovered reading forbidden books with her, his vengeful father had forced him to divorce her, and then to marry Ita, an “idiot-girl.” Before the novel begins, Sammelsohn has escaped the marriage bed, cut off his forelocks, and started a new life in Vienna.        

As he soon discovers, the lovelorn, incoherent Ita has drowned herself. As a dybbuk, though, Ita has acquired a sharp intellect and a tongue to match, as well as a propensity for lewdness. In the body of Eckstein, she harasses her former husband, holding Eckstein hostage until Sammelsohn redresses his wrong and returns her love. But Eckstein is, after all, Freud’s patient, and Freud must determine her course of treatment. Giving Sammelsohn “the indulgent look with which an adult meets the story of a child’s love affair,” Freud announces that the patient’s “symptoms” must be provisionally credited until she can be disabused of their validity. When Freud goes mano-a-mano with the dybbuk, he also wrestles with his Jewish past, which proves to have quite a grip on his emancipated scientific present. Aided by her two angelic chaperones, Ita proves a formidable opponent: together the three harrow Freud, mocking him, shouting out his Hebrew name, and precisely predicting the time of his daughter Sophie’s death. Before long the cowed doctor, who has just hung a protective mezuzah on the patient’s door, offers the dybbuk the best he has to give: psychoanalysis.          

What do dybbuks want? What Ita wants, besides Sammelsohn’s affection, is a space in which she can be free to be her caustic and satirical self, and she finds it wherever there is doubt in God. What she hates is hypocrisy, intellectual preening, and complacency, and in Freud she finds them in spades. Among recent fictional Freuds (Brenda Webster’s, Angela von der Lippe’s, Jeb Rubenfeld’s, Nicole Rosen’s, and so on) Skibell’s stands out as sublimely narcissistic. Soigné and foppish, he is obsessed with his clothing, jealous of his reputation, and worshipful of the fatuous Fliess. (Mulling over the case, he asks himself, “What would William do?”)The man who earned his immortality by re-imagining the mind is preyed upon by his own body; he curses a boil on his scrotum, indulges his addiction to cocaine, and continually hawks up phlegm. And his smug Sherlock-Holmesian confidence cries out for a comeuppance.           

It comes in the form of Ita’s psychoanalysis, which reduces Freud to a chronicler of her infinitely regressive and multifarious career. Ita, whose Hebrew name is a primal scream of vowels, turns out to be an incorrigible demon, with a Lilith-like track record of destructive incarnations through the millennia, not all of them female. In doing her bidding, Freud becomes a historian of the Jewish psyche, which is utterly resistant to redemption and ferociously resilient. What, Skibell seems to ask, if psychoanalysis went one step beyond the charade of crediting the patient’s report; what if psychoanalysis, for once, really believed it? And what if that report spoke, in a compelling Yiddish voice, of the endless train of sinning, suffering Jewish psyches who came before us? The fiasco that ensues when Freud, now a believer in demons if not in God, delivers his report to his colleagues—in other words, how this case of dybbuk-possession comes down to us as the Freud-Fliess debacle—is too delightful a surprise to reveal.            

Skibell’s fiction of psychoanalysis scandalized by Jewishness would make a bold, estimable novel in itself, but it is only the first of three sections. In fact, it sets a high bar for the book’s second section, which is at some pains to develop the Jewish conundrums in play. The problem is that Sammelsohn seems bent on avoiding them. He is the kind of Jew sometimes called self-hating (usually by those excessively in thrall to their Jewish selves). And he is frankly ashamed of being haunted—by the dybbuk, by his past, by Jewishness: “It’s a peculiarity of us Jews that we tend to drag our history along behind us, clattering and clanking like tin cans tied to the tail of a frightened dog, and the more we attempt to outrun it, the louder and more frightening it becomes. Still, it’s nearly impossible for me to describe the shame of being haunted by a dybbuk at the dawn of the twentieth century, as though I were nothing but a benighted Ostjude!” Sammelsohn does not quite have the courage to see himself “between two worlds,” as the sammel (composite) person he is. Instead, he projects this vision of himself onto disapproving father-figures, including Freud and (later) his wealthy, virile father-in-law, Hans Bernfeld. And while he enjoys the dybbuk’s feistiness, especially her potshots at Freud, Sammelsohn never quite grapples with her, either to love her or to destroy her. In the end, he defers, taking a vow to love her in a future incarnation.

When, through a chance meeting in Vienna, Sammelsohn encounters Zamenhof and his Esperanto movement, he embraces both fervently. He cannot resist, for three reasons. First, Zamenhof, benign and Quixotic, generous to a fault, is the closest thing to a good father that he has ever encountered. Second, Esperanto is about possibility rather than doom; about the future rather than the past. Moreover, Esperanto entails a pleasure-principle that makes it far more appealing than Zionism, that severe alternative vision of the Jewish future. (In fact, the historical Zamenhof “crossed the Rubicon” to Esperanto from a decade of ardent Zionism.)

When Sammelsohn “plight[s] his troth” to the movement, he turns away from his past, and Ita with it: “I had made my choice: rather than waiting forever for Ita in a Szibotya of my own making, I’d entered the braver new world of our virgin century with Fraulino Loë, meanwhile trading our old sad dzjargon for the glories of la lingvo universala, and my father’s linguistic idiocies for Dr. Zamenhof’s visionary schemes.” Ironically, Zamenhof’s world auxiliary language turns out to be most efficacious as an erotic idiolect, which Sammelsohn uses to flatter, court, and finally seduce his beloved Loë Bernfeld, all in sexually explicit—and untranslated—Esperanto. (Note to Esperantists: jen nova instru-metodo! a new teaching method!)

To interweave Sammelsohn’s story with that of Esperanto, Skibell follows closely the English-language histories of the movement by Marjorie Boulton and Peter Forster, and why not? The case of Zamenhof’s betrayal by pompous French intellectuals, including anti-Dreyfusards, begs to be remanded to the novel. What links Zamenhof’s story with Freud’s, beside Sammelsohn, is Ita, who returns in a new incarnation in Paris. The more she demands of Sammelsohn, the more the novel depends on his choices. Having betrayed Ita and his past for Esperanto, he ends up betraying Esperanto. In Paris, in pursuit of Ita, he leaves his post on an international delegation entrusted to select the best auxiliary language for general use. While he is gone the delegates, in contempt of the Jewish, “Slavonic,” Zamenhof, substitute a “reformed” Esperanto for Zamenhof’s creation, revealing the rot of anti-semitism and the failure of idealism within the staunchest pillars of the movement. And once again, Sammelsohn has blood on his hands, causing the death of an urchin he takes (or mistakes?) to be Ita.

Before the novel ends, Sammelsohn will encounter a third father-figure—the famous Piaseczna Rebbe, Kalonymous Kalmish Szapira, who taught and preached and wrote in the Warsaw Ghetto—and a third possible future for the Jews of Europe: annihilation. And on the corpse-strewn streets of the Ghetto, he will cross paths with yet another iteration (Skibell’s own pun) of Ita. The dark sparkle of this chapter comes when Ita’s two angelic adjuncts—as bleakly logical as Vladimir and Estragon and as provoking as Tweedledum and Tweedledee—whisk Sammelsohn off for a rollicking tour of the celestial Jerusalem, which smells alternately like urine, baking, citrus, and rats. Which is the smell of God? That is something Sammelsohn and Szapira will discover together.

Lukacs famously credited Walter Scott with inventing the modern historical novel. Scott’s genius was to place an everyman at the center of history, and use him (or her) to refract the powers of queens and armies, tyrants and mobs. But in Joseph Skibell’s extraordinary novel, even the ostensible everyman is no bystander to history. He is as guilty and restless as a dybbuk, and by his choices—above all, of ideas—others live and die. We are a long way from Scott, but this is a Jewish historical novel, and Jewish history has little to do with everymen. It is about Jews on each of whom the world—and perhaps the heavens, too—depends. When he is asked for a sample sentence for translation, Sammelsohn supplies twin mottoes: “The heart is crooked; who can know it?”and “The future is a thing of the past.” In Skibell’s masterful hands, the novel speaks like a dybbuk from within modern Jewish history, telling a story of crooked futures and unknowable hearts.

Esther Schor, a poet and professor of English at Princeton University, is the author of Emma Lazarus (Schocken, 2006). Her book on the Esperanto movement, Justice in Babel, is forthcoming from Metropolitan/Henry Holt.