This past week I came across a mention of Mihail Sebastian’s novel For Two Thousand Years. Fortunately the Princeton Public Library has a copy, which I’ve started to read. The story consists of the journal entries of a Romanian Jew, starting in the 1930s. Like the protagonist of Hans Keilson’s Death of the Adversary, which affected me greatly, Sebastian’s protagonist remains unnamed. Like Keilson’s protagonist, Sebastian’s refuses to conform to the stereotypes and expectations of his fellow Jews, much less those of his persecutors. Both struggle with maintaining their integrity in the face of physical and social violence, and the criticisms of their fellow sufferers.
The story begins with the brutal harassment of the protagonist and his fellow Jewish students by fascist thugs intent on driving them out of the schools and ultimately out of the country. My first thought was that things have not gotten this bad yet in this country. The media presented Charlottesville as an anomaly. We talk about cyber-bullying as if its only impacts were online. My second thought was “wake up!” It is going on today all around me. Wake up!
In many ways I feel like the protagonist’s parents in the Death of the Adversary as they face each other in their kitchen with the threat of “the inescapable affliction,” die unaufhaltsame Bedrängnis, filling the space between them and out into the whole room, the whole house, their world. I have used this scene from Keilson’s novel to explore the dynamics of the pain of a terminal illness, as well as the pain of social and economic oppression. Reading For Two Thousand Years is bringing back this scene, which has
remained and still remains deep in my memory. It was not fear, it was something much stronger and more definite than an emerging fear. You could feel it slowly approaching you and pressing upon your shoulders. You could kick out against it, clamp your teeth into it, or push against it. It was as real as the light switch and the fly and the old newspapers in the comer behind the curtain.
And being drawn back to The Death of the Adversary reminds me of another scene in that story in which the protagonist goes to a rally for his Adversary. I highly recommend reading how Keilson’s protagonist dissects his own reaction to the rally and to the central figure in this “situation of seducing and being seduced which every seducer takes advantage of.” Sound familiar?
For me, too, he owed his existence to an effort of the imagination. It was towards the person created by my own imagination that my feelings of fear, sympathy and hatred were directed.