1953: nace Michael Hafftka en Riverside Drive (Manhattan). Con cuatro años, se trasladará con su familia a Marble Hill, un barrio del Bronx. Su padre –Simon Hafftka–, y su madre –Eva Hersko–, eran refugiados europeos y supervivientes del Holocausto. Por entonces, su entendimiento del mundo se debe, en gran parte, a la percepción que tiene de las experiencias del tiempo de guerra de sus padres.
1971: estudia durante un corto periodo en la escuela pública Yeshiva y se gradua en el Witt Clinton High School. Este mismo año fallece su madre y Hafftka viaja a Budapest. Algo más tarde, se trasladará a Barcelona donde vivirá azarosamente durante algunos meses, impregnándose del arte y la arquitectura que allí ve, y, sobre todo, de las construcciones de Gaudí, que acabarán por conmoverle hondamente. Se niega a participar en la guerra de Vietnam y se declara "objetor de conciencia".
1972: volverá a Barcelona para una estancia de seis meses. Escribe poesía y observa la tierra extranjera con la libertad de un niño que desconoce el idioma nativo.
1973: se decide a trabajar como voluntario en un "kibbutz" en Israel. Para subvenir a sus necesidades tiene que vender su cámara fotográfica. Transcurrido un año se traslada a Hertzelia donde vivirá en una choza en medio de un huerto, a poca distancia del Mediterráneo. Madrugaba, se alimentada de frutas, nadaba y pintaba día y noche. En cierto momento, entonces, decide trasladarse a Nueva York para proseguir su carrera.
1976: hasta esta fecha no había conseguido exponer su obra en ninguna sala, pero gracias a la sugerencia de Ivan Karp fue invitado este mismo año a mostrar sus trabajos en la Guerra Gallery. Para sobrevivir trabajaba como free lance desempeñándose en diversas actividades.
1977: la segunda vez que pudo mostrar su obra fue tras finalizar su composición titulada Tree of Life, que fue incluida en una muestra colectiva realizada en la Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
1980: conoce al historiador del arte Myer Shapiro, a quien le muestra algunos de sus trabajos. Los consejos del profesor Shapiro le ayudaron a discernir mejor aquello que era necesario y qué superficial en su obra. Asimismo, Tom Gruenbaum le ofrece este mismo año la oportunidad de exponer sus obras –junto con las de Norris Embry, Jan Muller, Giorgio Cavallon y George McNeil–, en la 57Street Gallery. Por esa época, entra en contacto con el editor de Urizen Books, quien le encarga la realización de unas portadas para dos novelas de Michael Brodsky: Detour (primera edición 1981) y Wedding Feast (1981). Durante la presentación de las obras de Brodsky, el editor Kevin Begos le propone a Hafftka publicar un libro con sus dibujos.
1982: Urizen Books publica Michael Hafftka: Selected Drawings y el panfleto Art of Experience/Experience of Art. El panfleto era una dura respuesta a lo que el artista veía en las galerías, además de incidir en su continuo rechazo de las exposiciones. Hafftka era por entonces un joven airado.
1983: Barbara Flynn –de la Art Galaxy– que compra y admira su libro de dibujos, será quien le ofrezca llevar a cabo su primera exposición personal en una galería de arte. Cinco de las siete pinturas expuestas fueron vendidas a importantes coleccionistas. Aquellas fueron sus primeras ventas. Poco después, expondrá en la Rosa Esman Gallery de New York y, eventualmente, en galerías de Europa y Japón. Sus trabajos son adquiridos por el MOMA, el San Francisco Museum of Modern Art y otras instituciones. Hafftka continuaba pintando sus visiones y sus sueños, así como retratos de sus amigos.
1987: Por esta época desarrolla una visión más clara y diferente con relación a su obra. Comienza a pintar una serie de trabajos que culminan en su pintura Ceremonia. Esta serie de pinturas se expondrán en la DiLaurenti Gallery en el Soho. Sam Hunter escribirá la introducción del catálogo.
1989: en este año la firma Aberbach Fine Art comienza a representar los trabajos del artista. Jean Aberbach llevará –y presentará–, los trabajos de Hafftka a la exposición Art Cologne International en 1991.
1993: cuando Hafftka cumple 40 años, experimenta una fuerte visión que culmina en el ciclo de pinturas 40 Años. Renuncia entonces al realismo –excepto para ocasionales retratos–, para trabajar exclusivamente sus visiones interiores. En el 2004 el Housatonic Museum of Art le dedica una retrospectiva en cuyo catálogo reza: retrospective of large oils 1985–2003. Michael Brodsky escribió una introducción a ese catálogo como addenda al nuevo ensayo del profesor Sam Hunter.
2005: Hafftka finaliza un libro –Conscious/Unconscious–, de imaginativas viñetas que había comenzado a escribir en 1973. Esas historias están íntegramente conectadas con su trabajo visual y van acompañadas de sus dibujos.
2006: en este año Che Elias de la Six Gallery Press acepta publicar Conscious/Unconscious, libro que verá la luz y saldrá a la venta en 2007. La obra será recibida muy favorablemente, consiguiendo entusiastas reseñas críticas, entre las que destaca la aparecida en el Dalkey Archive Press, The Review of Contemporary Fiction.
2008: El trabajo conjunto con Che Elias le abre a Hafftka una nueva puerta de creativad. Pasa entonces a colaborar con Che y la Six Gallery Press ilustrando dos libros del mismo Che Elias. Consecuencia de esa colaboración, también, es la publicación y diseño por Hafftka de los libros de Michael Brodsky, Jonathan Regier, Joshua Cohen, George Flanklin y Peter Klappert. Realiza dibujos para Heaven of Others de Joshua Cohen, publicado por la Starcheron Press, y dibuja láminas inspiradas en el alfabeto hebreo para la obra Aleph-Bet, An Alphabet For The Perplexed de Joshua Cohen, publicada por la Six Gallery Press. Esas pinturas del Aleph-Bet fueron incluidas en la mayor nuestra de sus trabajos llevada a cabo por el Yeshiva University Museum. Sus dibujos ilustran igualmente el poemario de Peter Klappert Circular Stairs Distress in the Mirrors, publicado ese mismo año. Al mismo tiempo comenzó a realizar Ilustraciones para el Zohar, basándose en la nueva traducción de Daniel Matt.
Sus obras forman parte de las colecciones permanentes de museos como el The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Brookliyn Museum of Art, New York Public Library, Housatonic Museum of Art y Yeshiva University Museum.
Michael Hafftka vive y trabaja en Brooklyn, New York.
Michael Hafftka: Dreamworks
In Michael Hafftka’s vivid world unsettling figures emerge from the shadows as abruptly and mysteriously as they do in dreams, or, perhaps, during haunting nightmares and in half-remembered cultural myths. The airborne creature in his painting Fly, oblivious to the figure dropping into measureless depths below him, is oddly like a dark, post-millennial version of the buoyant lover delivering a tender kiss in Marc Chagall’s Birthday painting.
Disembodied and ghostly, a face hovers to the right of two truncated figures in the equally edgy work, The Observer and the Observed, its presence as inexplicable and irrational as the bright-eyed lamb in Chagall’s lyrical evocation of his Eastern European home, I And The Village. Here, with Hafftka, the drama is tinged with a modern, very personal ambiguity. In Hafftka’s painting, The Selecting Hand, similarly insubstantial, possibly imaginary forms appear against a backdrop whose sooty blackness is relieved only by smoky suggestions of random urban artifacts: stair steps leading nowhere, crenellated walls or gap-toothed fences through which a skeletal figure peers, amid rotting pilings rising from an invisible waterway, and fragmentary figures fading in and out of view.
Much like the memorable, searing works of Francis Bacon or, more aptly in the Brooklyn-based artist’s curiously dispassionate paintings, there are also reminiscences of the works of Chaim Soutine and Francisco Goya’s “black” paintings, which Hafftka admires unreservedly. In these unconscious references one encounters enigmatic emotions that drive his mysterious figures. These effects and unconscious references are broadly signaled by the artist’s lush gestural brushwork. Whatever its significance, the hazy halo of white pigment that erupts from the upright book on which The Selecting Hand’s iconic image appears, becomes in turn a virtuosic, abstract passage in the gripping pantomime, frozen as if by the crime-scene photographer’s flash.
The dynamic impact appears to be sui generis, like nothing historically imaginable, an explosion illuminating a disparate group of grotesquely distorted bystanders, and it simply makes the enveloping darkness appear even darker and more penetrating. Contrasts are sharp, masterful and totally tactile in The Selecting Hand, lending a sense of somber significance to what seems to be a crucial narrative that can almost – but, provocatively, not quite be deciphered, and it remains a gripping, ultimately incomprehensible puzzle.
As a result the observer is left with a wealth of possible interpretations, all demanding urgent resolution, and, most important, we encounter a formal statement so powerful that it too demands our full attention. Like other works in the Brooklyn-based artist’s thirty year artistic career, The Selecting Hand springs from assimilated perceptions of his own world, and it thus reflects an inner reality through his own glass: darkly, but with a sly sense of wit and irony.
His pictorial sources are rich, far-reaching and profound. They include the constantly changing urban environment Hafftka traverses constantly, between his home and nearby studio in Brooklyn, his family life, with growing children; his studies of art and artists, contemporary and past masters; impressions from a Bronx childhood; European travels and a seminal year on an Israeli kibbutz where he encountered a wealth of stories and histories, myths and legends. Those sources form the raw material for works in which reality and metaphysics blend and blur, spinning into their complex matrix modernist influencesand memories of art’s great masters. And in the process, they coalesce into an emotionally charged theater of the mind, replete with forms that are both absurd and tender, cunningly abstract but still realistic.
Nowhere is that more evident than in recent works, where the spidery veils of The Selecting Hand and the ominously blurred imagery of Stumble Dance have taken on greater solidity and specificity. A broad white band outlines the reclining and upright figures in Ninety Degrees, setting them apart from a background where red ladders seem to stand at the ready – perhaps to lead the ravaged recumbent woman straight to heaven, or possibly merely to hang a storm window. And while the narrative implied by the title and subject remains enigmatic, the tension between the fragmentary woman and the arm extended in what might be a healing gesture or, just as likely, fresh violence, together indicate passions barely held in check, and only for the moment in which Hafftka presents his ambiguous theater.
Almost defiantly, he crams his paintings with more information than the eye can see, and more details than the mind can process. His compounded theater of action is not primarily a visual concept; his main concern is with the emotions embodied in his subjects and, simultaneously, with our reactions to those subjects – both his own response, and that of the viewer. He works intuitively, striving to express in tangible form the sort of visionary impressions that he himself began to experience 30 years ago, while he was working on the Kibbutz. Yet he considers himself essentially a realist in the sense of drawing on an inner reality and giving it distinctive, urgent form and gesture.
His pared-down, challenging figures, often stripped beyond nakedness and without the body parts unnecessary for conveying the desired emotions, might seem grotesque as they carry out what seem to be rituals from another time, and from another, alien universe. Yet the considerable power of Hafftka’s paintings arises from the fact that his figures never fully cease being human, and are thus capable of either extreme cruelty or self-sacrifice – or, shockingly, of both. His recent Upheaval shows precisely that effect: flayed figures either tossing a bleeding person into the air or, conversely, trying to catch and cure him. Muddy reds flare in the background, as if to suggest distant fires, and crudely painted white lines over brown building blocks introduce the notion of urban structures.
The jumble of information, applied helter-skelter in the style of Chagall or perhaps a wise, inspired child, adds up to an alarming possibility: in the turbulence suggested by the title, a tragedy is taking place. What it is, exactly, remains open to question – and it is in that narrow window of disorientation, of multiple interpretations and the tangled emotions they bring into play, that Hafftka acts. His paintings, highly personal amalgams of his inner reality, reflect his willingness to work almost mediumistically and also, serendipitously.
He applies his pigments without relying on preliminary sketches, reveling in the physical process of transforming his large canvas into a surface alive with spontaneous gestures, writhing figures and visionary significance. Only later does Hafftka rework his “found” images to refine his overarching intention, which is to clarify and redefine the emerging reality. Over the past twenty years, since this author first studied Hafftka’s work in New York, it has expanded dramatically from its initial gripping precepts – and, at the same time, it has taken on greater depth and heft as his experiences increased, and his vision sharpened. But rather than simply growing larger in scale and size, Hafftka’s oeuvre has become deeper, more introspective and reflective.
His initial impulse dates to the early seventies, after the Yom Kippur War broke out and Hafftka decided to volunteer working on an Israeli collective farm. The child of European refugees who were Holocaust survivors, he was born in Manhattan and raised in the Bronx, where he attended public school and a Yeshiva. During his formative years, he was strongly influenced by his parents’ wartime experiences, which vividly colored his view of the world. Indeed, Hafftka says, the desire for freedom that he learned from his parents contributed to his early decision to become an artist, though it would be years before he found a medium that suited his need for creative, often extreme, self-expression.
While still in his teens, Hafftka traveled to Budapest on the first of several major journeys he made to find himself, to define who he was and where he came from. His mother had died in 1971, when he was 18, and he worked in a bike shop and Army & Navy store enabling him to travel and to meet his maternal grandmother, of whose existence he had only recently become aware. One aspect of the trip made a profound impression on Hafftka: his grandmother spoke to him in the English she had learned before World War II, and her stories emerged in a stilted style that struck Hafftka as Shakespearean, and very poetic. He traveled on to Barcelona, where he lived for several months as a “hobo,” as Hafftka puts it, experiencing and absorbing its culture, particularly Gaudi’s sinuous Art Nouveau architecture.
He continued his self-assigned task of cultural immersion after returning to the United States, visiting New York’s museums frequently and supporting himself in the bohemian style he learned in Spain before taking yet another trip to Barcelona – this time to write poetry and experience Catalonian culture surrealistically, by observing a foreign land whose language he didn’t learn. The impact of dynamic, colorful Barcelona on the young artist’s receptive psyche was profound, as was his method of opening himself to random events, incomprehensible situations and the compelling presence of great art – and then attempting to express them poetically. Hafftka changed his scenery again, by turning himself back into a peddler on New York’s streets, before leaving for the Kibbutz.
It was there, however, that the disparate influences of his itinerant life began to come together. Working on Kibbutz Afikim in the Jordan Valley – a location he recalls choosing by sticking a pin into a map of Israel – he was thrown into a fevered state by the conditions he found there. The temperature was over 100 by day, and by night a stunned young Hafftka was unable to rest. “I didn’t sleep; I dreamt,” he has said. “I was delirious every night in the beginning.
“I had a continuum of dreams that went on for several years. The dreams were often connected. They were mystical and visual in such an intense and flexible form, I felt as if my soul was being informed,” said Hafftka. “This has been the root of my art. I began to write down my dreams, but the writing of them was inadequate to express them. This is when I gave up poetry, writing and conceptual art (which had taken on the form of peeling tomatoes, drying the skins and collaging them to paper).
“I began to paint my dreams and soon enough the experience of painting brought on exciting and mysterious experiences, as suggestive as dreaming. I felt freer than I had ever felt before. Painting became revelatory.”
The doors of perception that opened for Hafftka during his Kibbutz year remained open, and allowed new material to enter constantly. He moved to a nearby village, living idyllically in an orchard near the Mediterranean Sea. “I would arise in the morning, pluck the fruit from a tree, swim and paint day and night,” he recalled of that pivotal period.
Back in New York, a long way from orchard and ocean, Hafftka worked a variety of odd jobs and painted, showing his work for the first time in 1976 at a New York artist-owned gallery and gradually building his reputation. The pace began to pick up in the early eighties, when Hafftka’s paintings were included in such group exhibitions as “Artist Protest” at Pratt Graphics Center and “The New Menace” at Gallery Schlesinger-Boisante, both in New York.
He saw his work published in 1982, in “Michael Hafftka: Selected Drawings,” and in another pamphlet published that year, “Art of Experience, Experience of Art,” and he saw it featured that same year in his first one-man exhibition. Other solo shows followed, as did his inclusion in group shows. Among them are “Naked/Nude,” Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Brooklyn Museum’s “Public and Private American Prints Today,” which traveled to the Rhode Island School of Design, Carnegie Institute and the Walker Art Center, and the Jewish Museum’s “Jewish Themes/Contemporary American Artists II,” both opening in 1986. His work was shown internationally in 1984, in a Dutch gallery’s one-man exhibition, and since then his paintings have been on view in Japanese, German and Belgian galleries, as well as in galleries throughout the United States.
Yet recognition didn’t affect Hafftka’s approach. “I continued to paint from my dreams and visions and to paint portraits of my friends (although there was no attempt at creating a visual resemblance),” he has said. “I was after a spiritual realism and I felt I was on the right track toward achieving my desires. All the while, painting for me was in itself a guiding light. Wherever the work led me, I would follow.”
By the late eighties, as he explored “both the subject matter and the substance of paint,” Hafftka had refined his vision. The works that resulted in his masterpiece of that period, Ceremony, focused on figures crushed by the weight of the darkness surrounding them and turning inward, as if to reflect on the existential angst they were repressing beneath banal, non-committal expressions. The scrawled figure in Stumble Dance bends forward, vestigial eyes closed and flayed arms resting on crouching knees. Behind him in the inky, scumbled backdrop that resembles a horror-show stage in the 1985 work are dusty-white vertical columns – wells of light, perhaps, or dramatically exaggerated bars in the central figure’s personal, suffocatingly restrictive prison.
Yet more stark and more gestural, Fix shows two grotesque figures and the leering face of a third, emerging eerily from a luscious patch of ruddy pigment. More than merely nude, the two figures shown in some detail look like grotesquely animated corpses. One would be on the floor, lying on a side indicated by crudely painted black lines that indicate ribs, except that Hafftka shows no floor – and, indeed, no spatial parameters at all. The figures, one in a cowering position that has him gritting his lipless teeth and trying to move by using the single, slashed flipper that trails behind his truncated body and the other upright, seem to be adrift in some fathomless sea. Yet the standing man, his harshly highlit form spouting blood-red slashes, seems not so much to be rising from a murderous frenzy as recoiling at the sight of the fallen man, pulling back to hide behind the bland smiling mask that hovers before smears and swathes of red pigment.
The figures multiply in monumental canvases of the mid-eighties, among them The Selecting Hand, The Observer and The Observed and Deposition, and in each the severe backdrop, lack of landmarks and grotesque figures work to create a powerful, even sublime sense of paranoia. The looming white face in The Observer and The Observed, with its beaklike nose and vacant eyes fixed ferociously on the work’s diminutive, pathetically restrained characters, is both an awesome apparition and a creaky plot device – the Wizard’s projected persona in a post-modern Wizard of Oz, and the very face of an omniscient being, filtered through a scrim that transforms it into a cadaverous Egon Schiele visage or a slack refugee from a societal nightmare by Otto Dix or Max Beckmann.
The artist’s fascination with abstraction found full expression in works like Bird, a searing 1988 canvas that only tangentially deals with its titled entity. The brushstrokes – slashing, dripping, slathered and scrubbed – are the thing, culminating in a luscious, lavish interplay of blacks and whites, cut with fiery flares and, on what appears to be the distant backdrop, yellowed reflections of the foreground drama, a sacrificial dove seems to have been slaughtered, and held up in a ritual offering. Hafftka’s return to a more fully developed realism can be seen in works of the early nineties, most notably the stark and classically distorted Man Sitting. Enveloped in dense shadows and clad in black, the man sits on a tilted wooden side chair and stares up at the viewer, arms crossed and eyebrows quizzically knitted. Beyond his expression of sullen surprise, his features betray no real, comprehensible emotion; a prisoner only of his own device, he is modern man, cast adrift from traditional roles and ancient beliefs – and he looks, quite angrily, utterly lost.
Just so does a 1993 figure, Christ of Avignon, appear both hopeless and resigned to his fate. Enmeshed in an agitated tangle of black and red brushstrokes laid over a more loosely worked dark-green and –blue backdrop, Hafftka’s Christ – a Jewish martyr, and a real man, beyond suffering – gazes at the viewer with his simple question, “Why?” He is a dazed, footless marionette whose strings have allowed his arms to fall at his sides, and his head to topple onto his shoulder. Yet he’s no more isolated than the figures in The Old Story, a nude man and woman seated at angles to one another and pointedly looking in different directions, or the open-mouthed figures seated on the ground in Forty Years, at the feet of the hooded skeleton blowing a trumpet.
Painted as intuitively as all his other works, relying not on a programmatic or pre-determined design or concept, Forty Years might pay tribute to the artist’s age at roughly the time it was painted, 1985, as he has said in conversation with the author. Or it may be a work in which sources, influences and intentions are subordinated to Hafftka’s primary working method: applying pigments intuitively, and only afterward refining his subject or general theme. And, indeed, vaguely Biblical references abound, linking the imagery to a fevered dream in which personal and archetypal angst intertwine with that of mythical or heroic figures. The Hebrews wandered in the wilderness for forty years after Moses led them out of Egypt, and King David ruled Israel for forty years, stories that are part of the cultural milieu in which Hafftka was raised, and which he adopted during his own days of wandering in search of the spiritual home art has provided.
Too Late, his 1996 painting of a man standing above a second figure crouched in a red-outlined box, is a lamentation, as is Hafftka’s painterly tribute to his late father, the affecting Last Wish of 1999. When he painted Too Late, Hafftka was suffering a personal loss – and his emotions were transmitted to a canvas which captures both the anguish of the friend who committed suicide and the grim reality of life after the self-murder, for the people left behind. Similarly, Last Wish expresses the artist’s sorrow as his father’s health failed and he died; as literal as the work might seem, however, its emotions are universal. The elderly creature can be construed as Everyman, reaching out for the hand of Death, a Halloween figure in black hooded robes and bloody athletic shoes, while to his right the limp figure on a slab has only to step up to Jacob’s Ladder to rise heavenward.
Childlike and intensely felt, both late-nineties works mark transitions in the life of the artist, as he wrestles with inner realities and manipulates their physical manifestations in oil on canvas. It’s a feat Hafftka has mastered over the past thirty years, and one he is continuing to develop and push to new heights. While his immense and compelling painting of urban life, Dead End, made in the year 2000, overtly ruminates on scenes witnessed by Hafftka daily, as he goes from home to studio and back again, it portrays not visual but emotional reality, cast onto the world stage of the artist’s imagination and projected as a fevered, fiercely expressive morality play. Props are simple: a brick wall to the left, benches and chain-link fencing to the right, a driverless sedan and rough cobbled street in dead center.
What is most compelling in the imagery, and brings the painting to nightmarish life, are actors who only seem to wear masks. Grotesques in the Grand Guignol tradition, they are the “usual suspects” sporting their horrifying true characters. Demonic and distorted, a gang gathers at the street corner, one holding a walking stick and a werewolf’s head while a second figure, his lips smeared with blood, reveals his base, subhuman nature. The three figures to the right are just as terrifying creatures of the artificial night that surrounds them. One, as gaunt and pasty as any disease-ridden urban junkie, stands and stares out at the viewer; beside him are other haunted hunters. A pale woman reaches long, elastic arms out to her mark, a legless man with the face of a rodent or simian. Wherever the black hearse-like sedan may go, the end is as dead as Hafftka’s denizens of an eternal, yet childlike and magically theatrical night.
One of the artist’s strongest works is also among his most recent. Like others in New York, Hafftka was directly affected by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and the World Trade Center towers’ collapse. The chaos of that day could already be glimpsed in his personal visions of suffering, torture, sacrifice and, paradoxically, everyday life; what is remarkable about works such as Survivors is that they extend the path Hafftka has been on for the past thirty years, and add new dimensions opened by new experiences. This spiritual change now appears apart from the subject itself, in this case a virtuosic depiction of an upright figure with only one leg, his head thrown back in horror and the thickened fingers of his over- sized hands clasped in Adam’s classic gesture of shame at his nakedness.
The Garden from which this figure is being expelled isn’t in Eden, however; it’s one where the graying forms of fallen figures are a tangled mass worthy of a Holocaust memorial, and where a background curtain of wavering vertical bands suggests a city of tall buildings, of lighted towers. Hafftka’s palette is muted but rich, with slashing lines of putrescent yellow the only deviation from his stark red/black/white combination. What is most remarkable is the brushwork, with its varied slashes and spatters of pure pigment forming a surface whose outrageous sensuousness only makes its colossal suffering all the stronger.
It seems that in the thirty years since he began projecting his visions onto a larger, more public screen, Hafftka was preparing for this very special moment in history, when his brush and muscular work would embody the special bestiality of our challenging post-millennial world. Yet for Hafftka the subject matter is familiar, since it also embodies his allusive, elastic vision encompassed so powerfully in Survivors and in his other dramatic new works. These extraordinary canvases clearly present the artist’s preexisting inner reality, and yet they also reflect the frightening truths of our grim, destructive contemporary world, and they make its enormity not only credible, but also pose a heroic challenge for both artist and viewer to confront and assimilate.
Writing the Unpaintable
There are three distinct, echoing voices in Michael Hafftka’s newly issued book: a writer, a visual artist and a son of Holocaust survivors. Understandably, this trio makes for a complex, even conflicted, aesthetic. And indeed, “Conscious/Unconscious,” interspersing 27 of Hafftka’s drawings with 56 rambling, phantasmagoric tales — has conflict written all over it. “Narrated in the first person,” as the book cover says, and “weaving an inner life made real by paradoxes and conflicted drives,” these whimsical, sketchlike stories surge with bohemian misadventures while remaining, at bottom, immersed in the vast shadow of the Holocaust.
Conflict of this sort has been, in some sense, Hafftka’s element. During the past three decades, this Bronx-born, Brooklyn-based artist has traded in raw, disturbing images — paintings of dark, disembodied figures; of stark gestures rife with cabalistic allusions; of private and archetypal angst. Done in that brash manner derivative — or, as the modern catchphrase goes, “reminiscent” — of Francis Bacon, his works have been branded “neo-expressionist” by the critics and installed in the collections of New York’s leading museums, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Brooklyn Museum to the Museum of Modern Art. It is not altogether surprising, then, that in his fictional debut the artist taps anew into the same visceral reservoir (this time, in absurdist, staccato-bound prose). What is less predictable, and actually more inventive, is the volume’s introspective, even retrospective, bent. Neither a tell-all memoir nor the autobiographical, “Everything Is Illuminated”-esque quest for heritage, Hafftka’s book is thus a savvier attempt to grasp this heritage obliquely, by tracing the confusions and insecurities of a recent past.
This oblique angle works well for Hafftka. In surveying, with certain humorous detachment, the tattered cloth of his present, the protagonist of his cryptic anecdotes often manages to highlight both the patchwork workings of memory and the larger patterns of history and cultural myth. What begins, for example, as a desultory schlemiel story — “I looked for her, but she wasn’t there” — suddenly switchblades into a chilling ancestral vision: “The last car was a cattle car on the way to Auschwitz.” Sentences such as those lend substance to the author’s poetic license: Viscerally intense and dispassionately surreal, they seem capable of transfiguring the event whose inconceivable horror is matched only by its searing reality. In the end, however, the results are mixed: Hoisted by their own dissociative force, these giddy tales fail to coalesce. Frothlike, they scrape at the nerve without penetrating the wound. Still, at times they stumble into coherence by sheer force of their archetypal images.
The story quoted above, “The Land of My Ancestors,” is one of such tenuous, narrow-margin successes. Eminently Hafftkaesque (both the title and the dreamlike tone allude knowingly to Kafka), it is also the story of Orpheus by way of Buñuel and Isaac Bashevis Singer: a quest for the shadow that yields — but only to make reality more shadowy still. In his pursuit of “her,” Hafftka’s somnambulistic narrator travels through a bizarre, tunnel-like transport, a makeshift maze with sections changing as he moves through them: a first-class lounge, then a “metro liner like Amtrak,” followed by a subway. Finally, there is that Auschwitz-bound car, “crammed with people and corpses.” Beyond it, he glimpses “another century, the land of my ancestors; creatures “pale with death’s anemia, wearing unfamiliar European clothes, starched shirts and uncomfortable hats.” Immediately, he closes the door. An unknown woman, “a beautiful girl I had crashed into earlier,” asks him if he is going in. No, he replies. She asks him if he is scared. “Yes!” he admits — delivering, in its last line, the story’s only certainty.
The narrator’s ambivalence is fully justified: His self-defined quest for cultural memory is inherently self-contradictory. For in implying, inevitably, that Auschwitz be at some point confronted, this quest also demands that this confrontation be not an end-point but a “passing through,” an imaginative transcendence. But Auschwitz cannot be transcended, as we know from Theodor Adorno’s famously controversial 1949 phrase, “Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” In seeking a vision of the past beyond the disaster, Hafftka’s narrator can only conceive of it in a style that is a nonstyle, a caricature: “starched shirts, uncomfortable hats.” His fear, at the end, is not fear of the Holocaust, or of its pain, but fear of aestheticizing this pain through art.
This fear, or squeamishness, is the closest that the story comes to succeeding. Shrinking before sentimentality, Hafftka’s pastichelike prose motions tentatively toward authenticity. But to reach it, the next step would have to be made: a reconstitution of poetics. This is precisely the step Adorno took when, by 1966, he recanted: “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream.” So it is, after all, possible to write about the Holocaust. Even, perhaps, necessary — provided one finds adequate means of expression.
Means of expression: It is here that Hafftka’s quest falters. Unlike the piece above, with its delicate balance of “her” and “the blonde,” Memory and Eros — most of his stories rehearse extravagant, ready-made gestures of cruelty and sex. There is always someone on the make: wife, wife’s girlfriend, model, 80-year-old woman, boy. Not to mention animals: A dog is fondled, a porcupine strangled, a bull castrated and flayed (in an obligatory nod to modernity, there are also aliens and terrorists). Little of it persuades, for this esoteric catalog, though meant as a scan of our Boschian nightmares, is told in a dead-pan-naive, pseudo-hallucinatory voice (one of the titles is “Stoned”) — a would-be dybbuk that yields, at its worst, a near-sophomoric impersonation of Kafka.
This narrative problem only re-diagnoses the issue that has been nagging at Hafftka’s visual output for quite some time. For more than a decade, he has relied on the same intuitive method that has served him well at the outset: letting things take shape spontaneously, letting brushwork or graphite grope for subject. This mode, a sort of plastic equivalent of automatic writing, has its advantages: In its total submission to the unconscious, in unhinging the perception, it allows, in perhaps the most authentic way possible, for cathartic cleansing. But it also exacts its price. Over the years, Hafftka’s shorthand begins to flaunt — rather than convey — what he has called its “revelatory” message. The fluid, sinuous linearity of his early drawings turns, in this book’s 2005 series, cartoonish and suave. Colors in paintings fall flat: There is neither the chromatic nor the textural majesty of Soutine or Rouault, the expressionists who have paved the way for Hafftka. Nor is there, for that matter, the luminous spectrality of Goya. If — as Sam Hunter notes in “Michael Hafftka: Dreamworks” — “Hafftka himself admires Soutine and Goya unreservedly,” this weariness signals the gulf still separating the artist from his self-appointed mentors.
Although they frequently intersect, Hafftka’s fictional enterprise and his visual opus move along parallel tracks. They are both products of a sincere and gifted artist who is not afraid to tackle what Steve Starger calls (in his editorial blurb) “the universal pain of our species.” But because the ways in which Hafftka tackles it are for the most part imitative, this pain is rendered decorative in his art. Somehow, it does not quite reach us. And this, in the context of tragedy, is distressing. If we are to follow Hafftka on that terrible train, we had better be sure that no ornament — intentional or otherwise — would ever keep us from perceiving its horror.
Imagery of the Unconscious:
The Fantastic Dark and Unsettling Light of Michael Hafftka
(the Zohar Book of Concealment Series)
To encounter Michael Hafftka's Book of Concealment series is to grapple with art as an embodied spiritual practice. Despite his exposure to life’s hardships, Hafftka remains committed to seeking communion with God and the world through art; he's just supplemented traditional devotional activity with painting. His artwork itself reconciles his search for redemption with a bodily activity, and he hopes that his viewers can also connect to the work on an emotional and physical level.
After three decades of increasing art-world reknown (including representation in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and more), Hafftka has turned his attention to the 13th century Jewish mystical text called the Zohar (which loosely translates as “radiance”). The Zohar, which has been traced to medieval Spain, is a commentary on the Torah written in Aramaic; the Book of Concealment is the fifth book of the Zohar in the Pritzker Edition. A foundational text for Kabbalistic practice (a mystical offshoot of Judaism) the Zohar, unlike the Talmud or other canonical Biblical interpretations, does not seek to better understand the rules, codes, and historical significance of the Torah, but rather uses the Bible as a point of departure for an imaginative, spiritual quest towards meaning. Because of its fanciful aims, the Zohar serves as an appealing subject matter for an artist similarly seeking a mystical connection to the word of God that transcends law and practice.
Known for the religious wanderlust that informs his work, Hafftka was contacted by the translator of the Zohar, Daniel Chanan Matt, who thought Hafftka would respond to the text’s elegant if cryptic lyricism. Hafftka uses the text to mine the universal themes and struggles evoked indirectly by the Bible, and by centuries of Jewish self-exploration. Although Hafftka has selected specific passages to correspond to the eighteen works in the Book of Concealment series (eighteen being a mystical number related to “chai” or “life”) he paints in response to the text as a whole, lingering on particularly evocative passages. He displays the work alongside the text in exhibitions, hoping that the words and images will activate each other, and propel the viewer towards greater spiritual immersion; ultimately, though, Hafftka does not consider the text essential to the experience of the painting. In a neat meta-critical gesture, the Zohar is a commentary on the Bible, and the paintings on the Zohar, so the works’ poetic remove is also an aesthetic response to the book itself.
Hafftka is marked by the Holocaust and the attempt to rebuild faith in its wake. The son of two survivors who met in a displaced persons camp after the war, Hafftka uses art to access a spiritual world and connect to Judaism. This longing and sense of duty to rebuild the world led Hafftka to Yeshiva and to a Kibbutz in Israel in 1973, at the start of the Yom Kippur War, where he spent a year painting in a studio in a water tower; the experience instilled in him the connection between ritual and spirituality in art. For Hafftka, painting combines ritual and emotion, and through his synthesis of figuration and abstraction he hopes to create a visual language for religious devotion. Interested in the work of Francisco Goya, Francis Bacon, and Egon Shiele, Hafftka seeks to similarly confront human agony through the figure. In an interview with Hafftka in his Brooklyn studio, he said that he creates “with total faith in the moment of creation.” His paintings sustain the contradictions that mark Jewish faith and Hafftka’s worldview—they are depictions of tortured figures, sinewy, inky bodies stretched to the breaking point, drained of color, but these bleak abstractions are also splashed with deep oranges, soft watercolors, and peopled with the Hebrew Alphabet, which plays a large role in the Book of Concealment series. The mystical side of Judaism transcends rules and law, and similarly for Hafftka, painting offers revelation, however fleeting. “Art offered me a way to practice devotion and faith, not as idolatry, but as a form of prayer—and as a dialogue with the unknown,” he writes. The Zohar immerses the painter in the Biblical imagination, and through his work Hafftka offers a kind of open-ended exegesis, that he hopes includes the spectator in his quest for transcendence. He says, “Pictures are the experience of the meaning [of the Zohar].” Hafftka has worked through Genesis and the story of Noah (both previously exhibited at Yeshiva University) and the Book of Concealment represents his most recent engagement with the text. Made with watercolor, crayon, and ink, the works vary in size and feel. A careful reader can imagine connections between “the appearance of a long serpent, extending here and there” in the third citation, and the snake emerging from the figure’s mouth amidst a swirl of splayed ink. Other works are more elegiac, such as the twelfth image, in which the figures’ bodies take on the form and shape of the Hebrew letter “hey,” obstructed only by a smeared, gray hand. “Hebrew letters are as pliable as human figures,” Hafftka writes about the work. “The letters provide me with a visual springboard, which is at once verbal, human, archetypal and Jewish.” Hebrew letters populate many of the paintings, even spelling out the name of God in the sixth of the series, which is traditionally forbidden to be pronounced or written. The Hebrew letters and the figures in the paintings perform a similar kind of work, standing in for a complicated but beautiful relationship between language and the Jewish people.
Hafftka emphasizes the mystical belief that the world was created by God through letters, and uses this theory to inform his work. He also seeks the devotional relationship to God dictated by Jewish religious practice through his experience of the text. Many of the works in fact bear the mark of his body—the inkblots are blown, containing the trace of his breath, an important theme in Judaism, as the word for breath and soul are the same (“neshama”). Other works, like the fifth image, contain a visible handprint in mottled black ink. For Hafftka, painting involves full bodily engagement. “I experience the Zohar as a conversation about the Scriptures that suggests traces of a hidden, supernal truth—a truth that may be explored with visual exegesis of a non-literal kind,” he writes.
Hafftka’s dark palette, messy lines, and abstract, hurried paint application is a progression of his previous aesthetic practice, as is Hafftka’s interest in figures and letters. His studio contains portraits of his family, which he considers realistic in that they convey the spirit of their sitters, although the figures are distorted by thick lines of yellows and blacks. Hafftka says that he “attempted to reclaim the lost humanity through figurative art, painting the human figure and its emotional universe.” He previously worked on a series of the “Aleph Bet,” the Hebrew alphabet, which takes the personification of the letters and their aesthetic as well as literary and historical significance even farther. These works also accompany a text in the publication Aleph-Bet, An Alphabet For The Perplexed (2007) which he collaborated on with writer Joshua Cohen. Hafftka’s interest in the books transcends his religious interest in the Bible and the Zohar, as he publishes books and illustrates books for Six Gallery Press, a labor of love undertaken with writer Che Elias.
His books, his twisted, elegiac paintings, and his frenetic enthusiasm all work to move beyond the horrors his family and the Jewish people endured during the Holocaust, and the perpetual Jewish challenge to reconcile a history of persecution with faith. It is not enough to try to believe or to behave according to ritual—Hafftka wants to have a mystical engagement with the world. He immerses himself in spiritual texts through his art and likewise hopes to provide an experience for viewers that allows them to move beyond bleak reality and retain a similar hope in the potential for redemption.
— The Adirondack Review
by Michael Hafftka
“I’m on the advent of a dream. I can feel it like acid in my blood,” says the I-narrator of one of the 56 vignettes—accompanied by 27 original drawings—that make up Michael Hafftka’s surreal collection Conscious/Unconscious, published this year by the innovative Six Gallery Press. Indeed, one might say that the entire work reads like an extended, über-Freudian dream sequence. Each of the “stories,” which frequently feature situations and characters presumably from the author’s real life, past and present, pulls us into a dreamlike parallel universe that is at once both personal and universal.
While the pieces in this volume unabashedly employ elements of autobiographical confession/memoir, they read more like droll, nightmarish fairytales penned exclusively for adults, the sort of thing Edward Gorey (with a dab or two of Woody Allen) might have written whilst sipping absinthe and expunging his innermost doubts and fears upon the purulent-white page (had Gorey in fact been interested in women and sex, that is). The drawings, which look as though they were sketched by some deeply-disturbed—albeit extremely gifted—future artist/lunatic child, draw us deeper into the tenebrous world the author has created both for himself and for us, his readers. What is so intriguing about the collection is that it was written by someone who has chosen to narrate his stories through the medium of paint-on-canvas for many years, rather than by way of the pen (though he apparently wrote poetry for a time before abandoning it in favor of the [paint]brush, as alluded to in his bio and, briefly, in one of the vignettes in the collection). For this reason, perhaps, the prose is anything but pretentious. Sentences are short, simple, to-the-point. There are no haughty literary allusions here, no semi-obscure references to the work of important literary theorists or trends, no linguistic acrobatics that would serve to place the author among the “avant prose-poets” of either yesterday or today.
Yet, neither is Conscious/Unconscious a work likely to make the bestseller list (given that a book published by an independent press could ever end up as such in today’s corporate market), for its content is much too honest, its implied imagery and ideas much too disturbing for the Da Vinci Code-devouring mainstream in America. Tropes such as scatology/urination; the desire to kill people or animals (as in “There Was No Need to Shoot,” “The Ass and the Porcupine,” and “Part of Me,” to cite just three examples); a constant fear of terrorists (Hafftka lived on a Kibbutz in the Jordan Valley long before 9/11); lust and apprehension—seemingly in equal measure—toward the female body/sexuality; penises and cannibalism (in one case the protagonist distastefully imbibes the former); phallic guns; etc., are revisited again and again in different combinations, at turns playful and terrifying, and always—if I may: Hafftakaesque. From the opening vignette, “Changes,” the reader is confronted with the appearance of a mustachioed monster with fake wings and a laurel made of leaves, a creature whose “nondescript” appearance suggests that it could be a stand-in for someone/anyone other than itself: the narrator-author, his father, you or me, etc. There is also a fairy-tale-like cottage that recalls the Hansel and Gretel myth (more so because the narrator is accompanied by his sister, though we all know from Laurie Anderson that Hansel was really in love with the witch!), and a series of Borgesian corridors that lead the I-narrator to a “deformed” portrait of himself which has literally changed over time in Dorian Gray fashion. The theme of change and transformation is again revisited in “So Different,” in which the narrator meets his wife on the street but hardly recognizes her (“She looked so different.”); at the end of the brief fiction we learn that her name was not actually “Roes”—as it has been spelled in earlier vignettes—but “Rose.” (Has the dream mirror inverted the two letters, or is something else going on here? A slip of the purloined pen, perhaps?) In the accomplished, hilarious allegory “My New Freedom,” the narrator finds himself unjustly accused of smashing four placards in his school, an offense resulting in “expulsion from the administration and/or death,” much as Josef K. was accused of a nameless crime in The Trial. In the second half of this fable-in-miniature, which reads like Dante’s Inferno or a description of a Japanese Hell Screen, the optimistic-turned narrator finds himself in a dark corridor running beneath the school with a group of disgruntled friends, trudging through excrement and spattered with urine-rain, only to emerge onto the streets of New York feeling disappointed with his newfound freedom. In other vignettes women have three eyes (or multiple breasts; or penises that turn into animal horns); smoke emerges from the ears of a friend as he describes the latest “Dirty Harry” film, killing everyone in the room save the narrator and the woman he is trying to bed; and alien creatures are employed to do the work of their bosses after students are rendered “zombies.”
Conscious/Unconscious, dreamed into our world by a visual artist whose paintings have been compared to those of Francis Bacon and to the “black paintings” of Francisco Goya, will appeal to fans of bizarre flash/micro-fiction and of the surreal/irreal, but it probably won’t be a favorite of readers looking for slice-of-life snapshots which give lip service to the Cartesian worldview, or to the 19th century Victorian novel in its modern-day incarnation. While the pieces are loosely tied together by the reappearance of certain key characters—the wife Roes/Rose, the lover Katina, the friends Ray and Rod, etc.—and by the consistent voice of the narrator, it cannot be said that they form any sort of coherent narrative in the traditional sense of the word; rather, the collection may be thought of as a pastiche dream diary of sorts, one that describes not the life and times of Michael Hafftka, writer/painter/poet, but the life and times of Michael Hafftka’s alter-ego “I.” The warning “All hope abandon ye who enter here” from Dante’s Divine Comedy would serve the uninitiated reader well, for, despite the self-deprecating humor that infuses these mostly-playful pieces, Hafftka’s world is nonetheless one that is dark, depraved, and decidedly disjointed; it’s bound to give some readers Freudian nightmares of their own.
— Mad Hatters' Review
Fiction: The Politics of the Afterlife
Richard Pryor used to tell a joke about the night he came to in an ambulance after a cocaine binge-induced heart attack. Surrounded by white medics, his first frantic thought was, “Shit! They sent me to the wrong heaven!” This idea that there are multiple heavens, right ones and wrong ones, white ones and black ones, is pushed to its fantastical limits by Brooklyn writer Joshua Cohen in his dream-world novel of the afterlife. True to the author’s trademark style of high-wire breathlessness—some might say talkiness—A Heaven of Others may have the longest subtitle of any book in recent memory, even in these subtitle- happy times. The full title is A Heaven of Others: Being the True Account of a Jewish Boy Jonathan Schwarzstein of Tchernichovsky Street, Jerusalem, and his Post-Mortem Adventures in & Reflections on the Muslim Heaven as Said to Me and Said Through Me by an Angel of the One True God, Revealed to Me at Night as if in a Dream.
Cohen, author of three previous books, is best known for last year’s Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto, a tireless 385-page monologue that dashes between its intertwined themes of classical music, American culture, and the fate of the European Jewry. The book made strong if quiet waves in experimental literary circles and among music writers for its daring sweep and hypnotizing prose rhythms, part Hasidic prayer and part Charlie Parker. Like Cadenza, Heaven is a challenging but rewarding read on thematic and formal levels.
The novel’s short earthly opening is set on a hot commercial street in Jerusalem, where a 10-year-old Jewish boy waits for his parents outside a shoe store. His social mirror approaches in the form of a young Palestinian boy who happens to be strapped with secret explosives. When the Palestinian boy sees the Jewish boy, he hugs him. Driven by something he doesn’t quite understand, the Jewish boy hugs the Palestinian back. Just as their four eyes squeeze tight—“like lemons”—a button is pressed; the bomb’s energy is released. What follows is the first of the novel’s wonderfully psychedelic prose supernovas. The moment of the blast, at once the moment of death and birth in the hereafter, opens a thousand doors to a slow-motion flock of flying pigs—the metaphorical meat of the slaughtered. The fleshy fractal geometry of bodies crushed and severed and splattered in every direction becomes “a huge pink hurtling, oink mad… Pigs are coming out of the woodwork.”
Along with the pigs appears a rope ladder to heaven. Alas, it turns out to be a rope to the wrong heaven, the Muslim heaven, a heaven of others, but the Jewish boy grabs it because it is there and begins to climb. As with the rest of the novel, Cohen adopts the vantage of the newly disembodied (and disemboweled) Boy, who is caught between the flying mess and the ladder that beckons him up, up and away from the blast scene.
Pigs tried to take me unto their squigglies, their hypnotically spiraling tails and their hairy and rotting though seemingly citric oiled flanks, exposed hunks of bunched phosphorescent bone to hug tight with your thighs tightened against the grease of the wind, oinked me to grab on, snouted me out to hold and hold tight, offering me to ride them out to wherever their flights might end, terminus… But I ignored them because of climbing, climbing is enough.
Once at the other end of the ladder, the Boy begins, like an ethereal Joseph K., a futile search of multiple elusive explanations. His journey takes him through deserts, oases, and valleys full of rusty nails; it is a spectral, largely soundless, beautifully distorted journey through the Muslim heaven of mirages and monsters, full of dreamlike misunderstanding and illogic. At a pit surrounded by a tire he meets the boy who killed him, and talks a sort of politics; he meets Queen Houri and her virgins, who ask him to become one of them; and he encounters a serpent in the Valley of Nails who says he can take him to Mohammed, who will hear his plea. But nothing works out in this heaven of others, and the snake lunges and falls dead, “its tongue hanging longingly out… forked in two directions different though equally nowhere, as dead as I stood.”
The scene is one of more than two-dozen illustrated by Michael Hafftka, whose haunting black and white ink drawings are often as arresting as Cohen’s language. This is the second time Hafftka, a Brooklyn-based artist with works in the permanent collection of MoMA, has worked with Cohen. They are a natural team and tempt a comparison to Ralph Steadman and Hunter S. Thompson. Just as those two challenged our idea of journalism, Cohen and Hafftka challenge our idea of literature. Call it High Jewish Gonzo for the lit journals.
— The Brooklyn Rail
On Writing A Heaven of Others
In the summer of 2004, I wrote a novel I called A Heaven of Others. Any synopsis makes it seem even more like the millennial fable I’d hoped it would be: A young Jewish boy is exploded by a young Muslim suicide bomber on a Jerusalem street. Through chance, divine error, or because the assailant embraced the boy so violently, Jonathan Schwarzstein (a German surname meaning “blackstone,” here meant to invoke the Ka’aba, the black stone of Mecca, and, also, a whiff of American magic) is whisked into the Muslim Heaven. He’s rewarded—as if a martyred murderer himself—with the virgins known as houris, and is pursued as an infidel by creatures torn from the bestiary of night; ultimately, he attempts to find the man named Mohammed, who is rumored to be able to restore him to the heaven of his own belief. Which is to say, the Jewish Heaven, just past “the Valley of Nails”… It’s still uncertain, though, both to the character and to me, his Jewish creator now three years older and wiser, whether that heaven, or any other, exists.
Before writing this book, the study of the afterlife (I’m sure there’s an exact Greek term I’ve not yet found) fascinated me. I borrowed books, bought what I could, and read for hours. I realize now that my research speaks to my fear of death, and my fear of dying without believing in anything next. On the recommendation of no one, I read through the works of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), who claimed to have talked nightly with angels, and to have had total, unsupervised access to heaven—to the afterlife, at least, of Christian belief. His De Caelo et ejus Mirabilibus et de Inferno: Ex Auditis et Visis (known in English as Heaven and Hell, because Swedenborg was equally familiar with the Inferno) is a vast account of these journeys. Here is an unfortunately typical passage: “The angels taken collectively are called heaven, for they constitute heaven; and yet that which makes heaven in general and in particular is the Divine that goes forth from the Lord and flows into the angels and is received by them. And as the Divine that goes forth from the Lord is the good of love and the truth of faith, the angels are angels and are heaven in the measure in which they receive good and truth from the Lord.” Swedenborg is readable for an occasional metaphysical beauty: There is no notion of time in heaven, he tells us; there is only one language there, and all the angels speak it (“angelic language has nothing in common with human languages”; Swedenborg spent years searching for a universal language, until he discovered that language was the universe itself); according to Swedenborg, every heaven has its corresponding hell, some forested, others of desert; “in some of the hells there are nothing but brothels, disgusting to the sight and filled with every kind of filth and excrement.”
I found the Muslim heaven to be more sanitary, not a brothel but sensual, if still misogynistic. This is because the ideal of the Muslim heaven—fountains, feathery pillows, and goblets of non-intoxicant wines—evolved from a time and tradition of poetry or imaginative writing, whereas that of the Christian heaven evolved from the purgatorial dictates of theology. The explicit accounts of Arabic poetries and Hadith or homiletics as derived from the Koran, the Book of Books, have since been usurped by the filmic mirage of a Scheherazade Theme Park, with hackneyed harems and sleepy oases, plastic-palm-treed and amply outfitted with camel. Abu al-Ala al-Ma’arri (973-1058) was a poet heretic, as he did not believe in the afterlife about which he wrote. His masterpiece, The Epistle of Forgiveness, sends a friend of his, referred to as the Sheikh, to heaven, where he encounters a host of signs and wonders, not least of which are unveiled virgins of his own (“houri” is said to derive from hour al-in, meaning that the whites of their eyes, in, contrast with exceptional purity, hour, with the blacks of their irises). Al-Ma’arri, regarded as the Muslim Lucretius, writes with a bitterness not to be found in more popular Arabiana; his is not the world of the 1,001 Nights or the travelogues of Marco Polo, but of the liberated satire of Swift: “After this the Sheikh, wishing to satisfy his curiosity concerning the creation of houris, was led by an angel to a tree called ‘The Tree of the Houris,’ which was laden with every sort of fruit. ‘Take one of these fruits,’ said the guide, ‘and break it.’ And lo! there came forth therefrom a maiden with large black eyes, who informed the Sheikh that she had looked forward to this meeting four thousand years ere the beginning of the world…" (translated by R.A. Nicholson, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1900, reprinted in Night & Horses & the Desert: An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, ed. Irwin, 2001). An irony here is that earlier, a handful of houris had revealed themselves to the Sheikh in their worldly incarnations: “Being one of the ugliest women in Aleppo, I renounced worldly vanities and devoted myself to the service of God… Hence I am what you see.”[...]
— The Online Jewish Book Community