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Kyle Bjorem Gardner ENGL 2220 April 18 2011 Negative Theology in The Book of Daniel: Only the Hand That Erases Can Write the True Thing The title of this essay1 comes from 14th Century Dominican friar Eckhart von Hochheim, better known as Meister Eckhart. However, one could easily imagine these words coming from the eponymous narrator of E.L. Doctorows The Book of Daniel, especially after having experienced the work as a whole. Daniel Lewin, mirroring but not duplicating the Old Testament Daniel (OTD), is an eschatological prophet whose vision is of the end times of reified conceptual thought and ideological systems. His method of disseminating his criticism and his mode of liberation are both closely intertwined with the tradition of negative theology of which Eckhart was a philosophizer and sermonizer. Within this process of inquiry we will examine Daniels relationship with OTD, unpack negative theology, look at Daniels analysis of the world around him, and finally move towards an understanding of how he has gained some form of liberation from the prisons of thought which have tormented him and others. Our current global society is the result of an ever-unfolding historical process. The now is not a conclusion to that process, or even a standing moment, but rather a perpetual inprocess. Every development or conflict or resolution is an occasion within humankinds

Eckhart (144)

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becoming. Literature is part of this world-historical evolution. Stories of past eras are continuously broken down and reformed in correlation to the epoch in which they are regenerated. The Biblical Book of Daniel and Doctorows The Book of Daniel are interrelated in this way. Doctorows Daniel is a post-modern regeneration of OTD, synthesizing all that has happened in the time between the two stories and concentrating on the situation at hand at the time of its writing. Ultimately, both Daniels are imprisoned within a system that is transparent to them. However, the prison has evolved, as must the solution. A likely proverb that could be uttered in reference to both stories is this too shall pass and a likely theme song would be: The Times They Are a-Changin by Bob Dylan. OTD, a Jew from Judea, is taken prisoner by the pagan ruler of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar. He eventually gains a place of influence in the court because of a unique ability to interpret dreams and visions. The first instance of this concerns a dream that has been terrorizing Nebuchadnezzar. He cannot even remember what it entails, yet he demands of his wise council that they tell him its import. Obviously, they all fail at giving an analysis. OTD, after praying and seeking Gods assistance, dreams Nebuchadnezzars dream and is enlightened as to its import. Daniel says that he dreamed of a statue or idol standing before him. This statue had a head made of gold, a chest and arms of silver, a belly of brass, legs of iron, and feet made partly of iron and partly of clay. A roughhewn stone enters and smashes the idol into dust. As the wind blows the dust away, the stone becomes a great mountain that fills the whole earth. He interprets the idol as representing the historical succession of powerful kingdoms, Nebuchadnezzars being represented by the head of gold, and the stone as representing the Kingdom of God, which will relegate all previous kingdoms to dust. OTDs all is vanity revelation gives him an ability to remain unharmed in a hostile environment (being left to the lions all night and never being harmed, for instance) and view his

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jailers kingdom in context. In The Rosenbergs Meet Nebuchadnezzar: The Narrators Use of the Bible in Doctorows The Book of Daniel, Brian Dillon makes an important correlation clear when he says that Daniel Lewin refers to himself as a young man trying to interpret and analyze the awful visions of his head (205), and those visions propel the creation of his narrative. Daniels thesis is a process of tearing down internal prison walls and torturing devices. Through this process the contrivances and dogmas of the world fall away and are seen as vain delusions. The Bible is referenced early on in E.L. Doctorows The Book of Daniel and right away Daniel is insinuating something about reified conceptual thought that will eventually contrast with the kind of orientation that he gains. Daniel says that God as a character in the Bible seems almost always concerned with the idea of his recognition by mankind [and in] declaring His Authority (20). The italics are his. The emphasis on the word character implies that this is not the only way to understand God, that is, as on object. God as a character (idol) is correlative to reified thought and rigid ideologies, the idea of a fixed and eternal capital t Truth. This is finally what Daniel rejects; he becomes oriented towards the totality of processional becoming and clings to no unalterable fixed Idea of any kind. This is also a goal of negative theology. Negative theology is an orientation rather than an apprehension of meaning. Michael Fagenblat, in the chapter Ethical Negative Theology within A Covenant of Creatures: Levinas's Philosophy of Judaism, makes this observation: Knowledge of God is a category mistake, for the structure of knowledge based on definitions, essential attributes, accidental attributes, predicates, and relations fails when

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it comes to the incomparable unity of God [] negation do not give us knowledge but conducts the mind toward the utmost reach that man may attain (214). Negative theology asserts that one can only affirm what God is not. No word or thought you could ever possibly concoct is attributable to God, God is always beyond. God is neither good nor bad. God, in fact, is not God, God is a symbol, the reality beyond the symbol cannot be understood, we can only allow ourselves to be open to it by eliminating walls of conceptual thinking and rigid logic. Fagenblat later draws a quote from Jewish negative theologian Maimonides in which he expounds on this orientation as Aiming in the direction off, of relating to, of comporting oneself towards, of reckoning with, of dealing with the unnamable (118). A correlation with Eastern Religions may be apparent. In fact, the very first line in Laotzus Tao te Ching is The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao (1). The relationship between words or ideas and reality is also evident in Eckhart when he states that God is neither this nor that [] Mans last and highest parting occurs when he takes leave of God for God (149) and in reference to the orientation of releasement to the inexorable unfolding he states that When everything that can be named is sloughed off [] the mind never rests, but must go on expecting and preparing for what is yet known and what is still concealed (220). Stasis would be sin in the realm of negative theology and Doctorow gives us a wonderfully terrible picture of this sort of stasis in Susan, the starfish, who I will return to later. Daniel is ostensibly searching for the truth about his parents, but really hed like any kind of truth at all. He is trying to understand his life and the context in which his life has been created. He begins the book by attempting to corner the truth (Dillon 370). His intelligence, as

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well as his narrative and rhetorical skills, are on full display as he leaps from different points of view, time periods, voices, and styles. He is here using the method of his jail keepers, of society at large. He is attempting to own the truth, and he will vivisect the world and his life and the lives of his family until he finds it. This is a very masculine method of inquiry and this is evident in the physical domination of his wife as well as the psychological bullying he employs against her. The language he uses in describing her body is very organic in nature, fecund, even somewhat bestial. His instrumental rationality can do nothing with femininity except attack her in another kind of vivisection. Daniel humbles himself by getting nowhere in his thesis, as is shown by imitating the voice of the reader, calling him out for his failing. He begins to become resigned over the fact that no absolute truths are available. At the start of Book Three (Starfish) he talks about Socrates and Jesus and that the difference between them is that no one has ever been put to death in Socrates name. And that is because Socrates ideas were never made law (Doctorow 201). Here we see the kernel at the heart of his analysis of the world, that when ideas are reified they automatically become false, become a force for destruction, a dead unmoving thing that people will use as an excuse to torment and repress anyone who not have the same idea. Socrates famously said that he was told by the Oracle at Delphi that he was the wisest man because he knew that he knew nothing. His mission was to question everything, to help others realize that what they thought of as real, true, eternal, was actually a mystery. Daniel engages in Socratic Dialogue with his own life through the course of the novel and comes to the same conclusion. His criticism is not just toward the American establishment, but towards any ideological system. He says that communists have no respect for people, only for positions (Doctorow 219) as well as I am beginning to become intolerant of reformers. [] Reform is complicity

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(243). The battle between Capitalism and Communism or Right and Left are two sides of the same coin forged out of incomplete ideas with insignificant connection to the infinite complexity of actuality. They are solipsistic kingdoms unto themselves. By Book Four (Christmas) he comes to this understanding of the relationship between society and reality: The Berlin Wall is not a wall. It is a seam. It is a seam that binds the world. The entire globe is encased in lead [] Inside is hollow. In a world divided in two the radical is free to choose one side or the other. Thats the radicals choice (278). The reality underlying ideological conflicts is hollow, void. Daniel emphasizes the radicals choice because he finally is not a radical and does not choose one side or the other; he accepts the void and is powerless to vivisect his way to perfect truth and justice. Susan is a radical who has made the choice for one side against the other consistently. Daniel says of his sister that within her resides the fateful family gift for having definite feelings. Always taking stands [] A moralist, a judge. This is right, that is wrong, this is good, that is bad (Doctorow 19). When they are children Susan tells Daniel that there is a God and that Hell get them all (20). She is the radical in the family and takes after their father. Theyre still fucking us (9) she says, an entirely abstracted us versus an entirely abstracted them. This is a statement that Daniel attributes to her failure of analysis (301), an orientation that contributes to her breakdown and eventual death. The starfish is represented as a self-sufficient subjective system, shut off from the outside world and unwilling to change or move on. The starfish is a complete stasis; literally closed-minded. Daniel avoids the fate of starfish and is going in the other direction, but not before a final revelation. Nearing the end of his rope he is savagely drawn into one more search for truth, a final death rattle or a crazed groping. He convinces Mindishs daughter to bring him to Disneyland, where Mindish is driving amusement ride racecars. Disneyland is presented,

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elaborately, as an absolute Mecca of falseness. Here everything is devolved into complete abstraction, the idea of an idea of an idea, layers of simulacra, an orgy of all the socially constructed nonsense that Daniel has been picking apart in his thesis. Mindish, the theoretical source of his misery and the only person who could possibly contain the truth about his parents, sitting at the center of the Disney-delusion of the world, is hollow. His mind is a void, lost to dementia. Daniel gains no truth and he is faced only with the personification of the emptiness he has been speculating about. All will grow old and die. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. In Ragtime, another novel by E.L. Doctorow, it is said of the protagonist that "It was evident to him that the world composed and recomposed itself constantly in an endless process of dissatisfaction" (92). This is the orientation that Daniel Lewin releases himself toward by the conclusion of The Book of Daniel. Liberation lies in recognizing the ultimate failure of reified thinking, systems, dogmas, and totalizing ideologies. Daniel ends his thesis with a modified passage from the Biblical Book of Daniel, stating But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, even to the time of the end [] Go thy way Daniel: for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end (319). The time for writing and self inquiry is over and he cannot go any further in this way. He has reached a place that is beyond the power of words and concepts to give proper voice to. The endless process of dissatisfaction rolls on in the form of an uprising on campus and Daniel is able to face the lions in good faith: I have to smile. It has not been unexpected. I will walk out to the Sundial and see whats going down (318).

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Works Cited Dillon, Brian. "The Rosenbergs Meet Nebuchadnezzar: The Narrators Use of the Bible in Doctorows The Book of Daniel." Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 40.4 (1999): 365 378. Web. 30 March. 2011. Doctorow, E.L. The Book of Daniel. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1983. Print. Doctorow, E.L. Ragtime. New York: Plume, 1997. Print. Eckhart, Meister. The Essential Writings. Trans. Raymond Blakney. New York: HarperOne, 1941. Print. Fagenblat, Michael. Ethical Negative Theology. A Covenant of Creatures: Levinas's Philosophy of Judaism. Stanford, CA: Stanford Uni P, 2010. 111-139. Print. Lao-tzu. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: HarperCollins, 2008. Print.