I first heard of this book on the Huffington Post. They compared it to The Night Circus, which I loved. Later, I was perusing the shelves of a local bookstore and noticed it was one of the staff recommendations. The book itself was beautiful: quality pages, stunning cover, fine quality. I was hooked. I went ahead and splurged for the hardcover edition.
The story takes place in New York City in the late 1800’s, where two mystical beings attempt to survive and avoid being discovered. They meet and as the story unfolds, they learn the secrets of the magical bond that connects them to each other. The book is very well-written with rich imagery and engaging characters. In fact, for me, I found some of the secondary characters to be the most interesting, particularly Yehudah Schaalman, the Jewish kabbalist who creates the golem.
I love books that weave mysticism and the occult into an engaging work of fiction. It’s like searching for kernels of hidden truths within a fable. This book accomplishes that magnificently. It’s an easy read, but below the surface are some thought-provoking ideas that warrant contemplation.
One of the ideas addressed in the book is the existence of the soul, particularly whether a golem can possess a soul.
On the surface, the answer was a simple no. Only the Almighty could bestow a soul, as he had ensouled Adam with His divine breath. And the Golem was a creature of man, not God. Any soul she could have would be at most partial, a fragment. (p. 157)
I’m also fascinated by the concept of fragmentation, particularly as it relates to Plotinus’ theory of emanation. The short version is this: Everything is emanated from the source, which is the Godhead. From each emanation, other emanations are put forth, expanding the act of creation. But, at each level of emanation, the thing in existence becomes more fragmented and separate from the Godhead. Hence, the golem, being removed several times from the divine source, must be more fragmented.
Throughout history, drugs have been used to alter consciousness and evoke mystic visions. I personally do not recommend this path, since the dangers far outweigh the benefits. That said, there is an interesting passage in the book where Schaalman smokes opium and envisions the world as an illusion.
He now saw that the material world was only an illusion, thin as a cob web. (p. 326)
I like the use of cob web to describe the illusion of the material world. On one level, it is woven, just like the constructed illusion which many of us have come to accept as reality. But a cob web is also diaphanous, allowing one the ability to glimpse through it. With practice, one can learn to see through the web of “reality” and glimpse visions of the infinite.
The section of this book that had one of the most powerful impacts on me is near the end. Schaalman taps into a form of the collective unconscious and is overwhelmed by the experience. While I am fascinated by the prospect of connecting with the divine consciousness, I’m also scared, for the exact reason described in this book, that a human mind can only handle so much of the collective unconsciousness before it becomes overwhelmed and possibly damaged.
The human mind is not meant to house a thousand years of memories.
At the moment of contact with the Jinni, the man who’d known himself as Yehudah Schaalman had burst apart at the seams. He became a miniature Babel, his skull crowding with his many lifetimes’ worth of thoughts, in dozens of warring languages. Faces flashed before him: a hundred different divinities, male and female, animal gods and forest spirits, their features a blurred jumble. He saw precious gilded icons and crude carved busts, holy names written in ink, in blood, in stones and colored sand. He looked down, saw that he was clothed in velvet robes and carried a silver censer; he wore nothing but chalk, and his hands were clutching chicken bones. (pp. 439 – 440)
This really is an amazing book and I recommend it to everyone. I read a fair amount of books and I can say that this is the best book I have read in quite a long time.