Joel Newberger

from 'The Book of Visions, An Autobiography'

On the first day, not one angelic personage came to me, no fish, no wanderer, no visitor, no stranger, but the entire Book of Words was before me. It was a real book, and I had to read it all the way through. This is no parable of reading. It is not a memory of learning or being taught something. I read from cover to cover every word of story, law, genealogy, vision, parable, sermon, prophecy, lament, proverb, and song, every word, and if I skipped any I went back, and if I was distracted by a hiss or a bumblebee or hints of my impending birth I began again from the beginning of at least that page. The task of this day was to read the book, according to what reading really is, that is, minding the word of the word until, simply, it becomes the word of the day, and completes history before anything happens. But words were not created on the first day. Books, too, were not created then. Reading, however, was from long beforehand. Reading the scripture took a long time, almost until the beginning of tomorrow, and I grew weary, and once I finished the book, in the minutes that were left, I went for a walk wherever I could set my foot on a star or something specific, something solid. I made my way along the path I made, and got somewhere, and here I was. We go real places after we have read the Book. As it is written, “and a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the way of holiness, but it shall be for those, only the wayfaring men and fools, and they shall not err therein.” The wise and the foolish alike call this way “the road,” and they say it leads to the door, and they say secretly it leads to the heart.


That is, I followed the road to the heart all the days before I was born, and I saw visions on either side of me, now of human earthly prodding delight, now of loves weeping, consoling, incapable of being consoled. I couldn’t console them, and walked on, day after day. Here and there I came to stations by the roadside, where many men and women rested. When I asked them, they told me they had waited there their whole lives, never going, never walking the road to the door, never guessing that the door is the heart, always anticipating the heart to come. The oldest of them told me that the world will be restored, when the wheels of the heart roll this way, to human cities and homes with sprigs of holly stuffed beneath their knockers, and I could not but be baffled and saddened at his delusions, and continued on my way. What I would learn later is that the road to the heart is the way of the heart, and one’s own desire is the leader of the rite, and the heart is the hierophant in the mysteries of love. It is with us, from the very beginning.


In the beginning, on the day I was born, I was aroused by being me, and your water filled me, and I was full of their secrets. You were the world, you licked the pearls of my crown, you sucked my synapses. You were the whale, and I was Jonah. We wormed. You were the earth, and I was Korach. You were the world, and the world was you. The oil of your tongue leaked from my fresh-cut navel, and I would be King forever or never. Now I was the world, and you were the Messiah. You were the world to come, and I was the blind, weeping, prophet of the end, betrothed to a harlot. With your hand you withheld my images and held back the torrent of my vision and nearly killed me. I was the loud, and you were the slow. We were the world, and we swallowed we.


On the evening of the first Sabbath, I had a vision and dreamed a dream. I was flying over a landscape, not quite darkened, for the sun dallied at the edge of the world, beckoning me. Not dark yet, for the face of the earth was lit up by lovemaking in alleyways, sacrificial fires on rooftops of villages and cities, funerals on hilltops, in meadows, on mountaintops, stopped cars, glowworms under the highways and fireflies in the wombs of mothers, candles of wisdom drifting over the waves to find the true child and throw light in her mind. In the sky I flew through, the Red Heifer was grazing on the day that was ending, eating Friday, her redness inviting the Jews into the orchards. Not dark yet, for their eyes still flickered over the books they abandoned, not completely dark for they carried torches into the fields. Not quiet either, for the ones who went up into the hills were singing, beckoning me to their high places. “Come, bride, come, bride,” they sang and could only mean me. But, even as I was entranced by their chant, and drew nearer, almost above the swaying congregations, flying circles and flapping to bring them to the brink of joy, even though I wore the Crown of Sabbath, I wanted not to be among these crowds, intemperate, sweaty, apprised of my every significance, this evening. For I knew I would be given to the Jews when I was born, but I would not descend among them till then. In this vision, I turned back to the recumbent cow. She lowed. She said, “I know you, and I love you. Go down and find me in the city they have abandoned.” Shrieking, I swooped through the air suffused with mortal prayers, flew south, as swift as desire could move me, and landed on the minaret of the groaning mosque. This was Jerusalem. No man, nor woman, nor child walked in the streets. I became a man. I walked, still winged. I passed men and women I had seen in their youth, at the hoof of Mount Sinai, now all their flesh was made of stone, though perhaps their eyes followed me down the street as I kept moving. Red drop on white wing, red droplet of blood on white page, red clay of Adam, red eyes of the enemy, our savior. I looked up at the stars for direction, but they had all gone to the orchard to pray. When, one by one, my eyes fell, I saw a shape turn the corner ahead of me. It was a sheep, with a red stain between its hind legs. I couldn’t read it. I walked faster. It was further along. I was exhausted, sweaty, hardly capable of stopping, but I kept it in eyesight the whole time. At last it came to the narrow mouth of a tunnel and went in. I went in after it, now crawling, now slithering, depending on the animal I was, rolling, sauntering, skittering, until gradually the passageway widened and brought us, finally, to a dank cave where I could stand. In this vision, you were there, real as these lines that turn red, exactly as you are, exactly as you wanted this to be. Over our heads, I could hear footsteps, shuffling, things moved, songs, the moaning of animals, the silent authority of the priests, palaver about business and children and God, and the crackling flames that the secrets of God kindled. In the dream I dreamed I knew we were under the Holy Temple, in a room, on the Sabbath, alone, undisturbed, except by condensation that now and then dripped from the ceiling. You said everything you did not know. I told you everything I could not remember. How could we go on? You went on. We could only go on. We had all day, and we never rested. We unmade love, until a word compelled you to say it, and hearing it blaze out of your chest, I desired you more than ever. Batting my wants away, I flew once around the chamber, and then embraced you, and we went on, mocking God, taking life, making love, quickening the changes, unmaking the world, destroying the temple, loins on fire, wings diaphanous, and that was the end of the first week.


When I was born, my mother was reclining on the dry land where her beauty had split the sea. But I was thrown by her contractions into the water before it could congeal. As I could not swim, she worried I might die. According to the Book of Words, she attached a worm to the hook at the end of a length of string and threw it after me. I caught it in my hands, slipped the worm off and ate it, and pierced my cheek with the hook, so she could reel me in.


When I was born, my Magus told me as he knelt at my deathbed, I performed eight miracles. They are, according to what he told me, as follows: I was born; I cried; I clenched my fists; I urinated standing up; I looked at something; I closed my eyes; I kicked my legs; I fell silent.


My Magus also taught me the esoteric interpretations of each of these miracles, which have been passed down by the Qabbalists, from grandmother, to mother, to daughter. According to the words of the words, they are as follows: I gave birth; I sang; I opened my hand; I drank pure water; I saw everything; I changed my mind; I danced; I listened.


When I was born, for a moment the earth and its creatures and ample vegetation had come to a standstill. Everything that I will explain is foreshadowed in the Book of Words, where it tells us that Moses lifted his hand and the sun and the moon and all the stars stopped moving. Just so, I reared my head out of my mother, and the business of nature and of the human world paused. It was much like the cessation of music by a perfect act of listening, or the cessation of fear by perfect attention. Free at last of all the distractions of the supernal orders, I could at last touch the touch, smell the smell, and ask questions. I could teach without teaching, touch without touching, hear without being heard, and inquire about the smallness of small things. What visions do you see, I asked the bear, in the murmuring liturgy of hibernation? What visions do you see, I asked my father, when you sleep at night in a jug of milk and forget your son? The poet of the mountain, I asked her, what visions do you see, when you pour water from one bowl to another? What, mother, do you see, what visions, when you count the numbers and find nothingness missing? There was another poet, coiled in his green house, and I asked him, when you drink the black water, having just woken, what visions do you see? What dreams, snake, do you dream, when you sink into the graves of righteous women? I asked the things what they were, and the beings who they were, and the sick and diseased how they were, and the wise why they were so glad. Having been born, with pleasure, I asked my mother when I would be born again. It was an infinite moment, and I had so many questions. There were Christians assembled there, and I asked them, what visions do you see, when I speak to you and say that I am God? There were Muslims also, and I asked them if they believed me when I said — it was not yet darkness — that my beloved is God, or if they trusted me but could not be quite convinced. There many Jews, of course, and I asked them if there was one God, two, three gods, or four?


Late in the evening of the first day, my mother tells me, she was exhausted from being and fell asleep. Then she was dreaming. The world was, seemingly, someone, somewhat shy in her presence, sometimes becoming perfectly still when she moved towards it. In the dream, everything she did was to summon it, her footsteps, her hands rummaging in the pails of death, her eyes blinking, even her touching; all of her touching was to summon it. In the end, it was only by breathing in the dream that she got the world to come closer, breathing and perhaps singing, but she couldn’t remember. When she was sure the world would hear her, she asked the world the question she had been dreaming of asking all this time. “Do you love me?” The world blushed and said, “I do.”


I love you. I do. Last night I screamed out for you. I couldn’t sleep. I touched myself as if I were you. But you didn’t come. I came. I called out to you. I stroked the walls. I drank water. I love you. I would come to you wherever. Where are you. Every vision is you, isn’t it you? I cannot see you, or hear you, or touch or smell you. I am senseless, witless, I can hardly write this, but all I can do is write. Last night you wouldn’t come to me, and this morning I didn’t know you. Passions, lamb’s blood, suffering, crossing the street, turning the light on, being me, being flesh, washing my fingers. I touch you when I touch anything. Anywhere I walk I come to you. I talk to you, when I speak to them, and I love them as I love you. Last night I turned over in bed and saw you, and held you, and you kissed me. Do you love me? You kissed me again. You were there, warm, sweaty, hairy, breathing, touching, kissing, rubbing, blurry, barely there. Last night, I changed my mind, but you weren’t there. I changed who I was and took off my clothes, lunged at a book and broke the words, and looked outside. I saw the moon. I couldn’t see you. I saw the bear. I saw the archer. I saw the arrow and the arrow flying. I looked inside, and I saw you as you are. Are we still the sacred animals of the sky? Last night I asked you. I asked you everything, and you were the answer. Yes. I love you, though I don’t know you. You are the white ram on the crags of the setting sun. You are the voice of the sun, and the cry of the moon. Last night, I went looking for you. I saw the world. I showed myself in all my nakedness to the dogs, the geese, the stars, the lethargic gods, so they might know me if you ask for me. Were you there, when I came home? I can’t remember yesterday, not the last word I wrote. Someone kissed me. Someone came close to killing me, and kissed me again, and pressed my groin against something as warm as a groin. I came. Apparently, I had come home. I coiled with someone in a dark place, with you, only with you, taking and taking, wanting and touching, all winter, the season of the bear alone and barely able to speak of what he yearns for, alone in his den. It was me all along. I love you. Last night I dreamed a dream, and you watched me, awake, next to my bed. Tonight I will never sleep, I will perform miracles before you, touch you and please you. Will you come to me? Tonight, I hate sleep. Sleep is sloth and evil. I will roar out to you, like a voice in the wilderness, the rapture of an enormous animal who envisions springtime.


Tomorrow, I will not be pleased by the daylight. It is ordinary. It is of no use to us animals. I will roar out to you, without warning, and the day will be black, and the darkness will be tangible. You will not know who or what I am, but we will stroke each other’s hearts until the brink of vision and lie down together on the lodestar.


Tonight, I do not love you. I adore you. I want you. Tonight, I do not need you. Do I know who you really are? I do not remember you. But now I see you. You are a warrior, but you have no weapons. You have braided your golden hair. You walk the streets, crying, sometimes flashing glances at beautiful strangers, dancing with them if they would like to. You have no need for the daylight. Do you love the world? You slash at it with intention, with desire, you slit its throat with hopefulness, you love it with your dagger. In my lair the vision of you assaults me with your loveliness. You cut out my eyes. You cut off my head. I have no use for it. My hands are capable of everything. Tonight, I disdain the dreamworld, too lucent and too rigorous, too many fingers of that old light that shine and never touch me. I hate everything except you doing everything to me, hurting me, and piercing me, and beating me with your heart, your only weapon.



AUTHOR’S NOTE: Autobiography must be something other than we suppose, because we ourselves are not what we think we are. The text of the life of the self, or the writing of the living of the selving. The writing of life itself. In this sense, Hayyim Vital’s sixteenth-century “mystical autobiography” must be among the truest autobiographies ever written. For the first time the sacred hermeneutics of the Jews are applied to an individual soul, in its present form and in the sequence of its incarnations. Vital’s claim is that Jewish tradition — cosmogony, sacred history, proverbs, fables, prophecy — is consummated in the body of a single man and that it has its fullest significance in his experiences and dreams. 


So, it is not a narrative of a life remembered; it is a Book of Visions, a record of dreams and visions, as if the only stuff of life is the revelations we are given to see or know dimly. Duncan’s essential autobiography, “the workings of myth in my spirit.” 


Vital’s Book was meant to be testimony to his messianic election, its visions sure proof of the special origins and destiny of his spirit, but that man was caught up in the politics of Tzfat, qabbalistic controversy, the right tradition of Rabbi Luria. 


No matter. His Book teaches: life is vision and those who have visions will be the saviors of this world. A blessing! To all of us this gift has been given, if only we would accede to that old teaching that the kingdom of god is within you all.


It is. The life of the self we will write is conterminous with creation: messiahs, all of us, or soon to be, anointed with the oil of our common language, when once more we arrogate to ourselves all of our dispersed powers. Thus, this autobiography. Not a record of visions, but the wager of writing, and of all saying, that it might see marvels and thereby prove salvific. A wager — for the instauration of our world.