The Prophet with Eyes
In Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob, based on the real life of a self-proclaimed Jewish messiah in 18th-century Poland, theological energy competes with the liberal novel’s finely wrought machinery.
Discussed in this essay: The Books of Jacob, by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft. Riverhead Books, 2022. 992 pages.
The Talmud records an opinion that, if a wedding feast is prepared and “the groom’s father or the bride’s mother dies, one should bring the corpse into a side room, and the bride and groom into the wedding canopy.” Sounds like a fun wedding. This inhumanly practical ruling avoids wasting the comestibles—after all, the Talmud observes, “one’s bread was baked, and his animal slaughtered, and his wine mixed”—at the cost of emotional oxymoron. We might see an allegory for generational transfer, the sense in which every wedding is a funeral. Sunrise, sunset, except that one season is not followed by another, but instead lingers like an oblivious guest. The past may be dead, but it cannot be buried.
Early in the Polish novelist and Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk’s 2014 historical novel The Books of Jacob, translated into English this year by Jennifer Croft, the Shorrs, a Jewish family in 18th-century Poland, face a situation not unlike the one described in the Talmud. Hosting a wedding in the city of Rohatyn, they must decide what to do when an aged woman named Yente arrives, worn out by a long journey and on the verge of death. They search the holy texts for guidance and find in the Zohar a numerological hint that a funeral dispels more demons than a wedding, and is thus to be preferred. Uncomfortable with this morbid counsel, they help keep Yente alive, sticking her in a side room and placing an amulet containing the Hebrew word for “waiting” on her body. Unbeknownst to them, Yente promptly eats the amulet. Its directive internalized, she is mysteriously and indefinitely suspended, unmoving, between life and death.
The Shorrs have consulted the Zohar instead of the Talmud, the foundational text of rabbinic Judaism, because they are followers of Shabtai Tzvi, the self-proclaimed messiah who preached and practiced the abrogation of the Law: He married a prostitute, ate unkosher food, and performed what Sabbatians later termed “strange deeds” to announce the arrival of a new messianic order, before ultimately converting to Islam under threat of execution by the Ottoman Grand Vizier. When The Books of Jacob begins, in the 1750s, Tzvi has been dead for 75 years, and tens of thousands of his followers, known as Sabbatians, have spread across the Ottoman empire and central and Eastern Europe. The novel is named for a Sabbatian called Jacob Frank, a real person like Tzvi (and like the Shorrs), who was born in Poland, was raised in the Eastern Carpathians, and studied in Salonica and Smyrna; he, too, claimed to be the messiah. Early in The Books of Jacob, at the Shorrs’ wedding, news arrives that Frank has married the daughter of a prominent Sabbatian; the novel tells the story of how he went on to reinvigorate and radicalize the Sabbatian movement.
Historically and in the novel, Frank and his followers were notorious for sexual libertinism, but also for the less loveable transgression of furthering the blood libel: In a disputation with “Talmudists,” they publicly testified that Jews baked Christian blood into their matzahs. The scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem called Frank “a truly corrupt and degenerate individual,” and that was while defending Frankism from 19th-century historians who saw neither redeeming value nor historical significance in Frank’s antinomianism (that is, the rejection of law as such). Against such minimizations, Scholem argued that because Frank unloosed the knots of halakhah and dissolved the boundaries between Jews and Christians, he inaugurated Jewish modernity. Moreover, Scholem traced esoteric lineages tying Frank to world-historical developments, a Jewish riff on the (mostly) fanciful theory that the Enlightenment emerged as a conspiracy of Freemasons: Frankists’ descendants numbered among the founders of Reform Judaism; Frank’s nephews were “active in high revolutionary circles” during the French Revolution, secretly realizing Frank’s dreams of overturning the social order; and a scion of a Frankist family, Louis Brandeis, eventually became the first Jewish justice of the United States Supreme Court. Scholem’s Frank somehow succeeds by failing, fading into ignominy only to see the world remade in his image.
In the novel, Frank’s followers hope that he will establish a stable, landed community of Sabbatian Jews, thus relieving their material poverty and oppression, and fulfilling their mostly conventional expectations of a messiah. And for a time, he does, founding a commune with the help of an itinerant Polish nobleman and his sympathetic family. Yet eventually, encouraged by his Christian patrons, he leads a mass conversion to Catholicism and undergoes baptism with 500 of his followers, who, disoriented and confused, take new Christian names. Frank lives large off his disciples’ donations, moving to Warsaw, where he hobnobs with wealthy aristocrats. He and his daughter buy numerous pairs of expensive slippers, which they wear outside and thus ruin in a single use. Not content to be simply a Christian, Frank continues to style himself as the messiah, attracting the suspicion of the Church. Eventually, he is accused of heresy and confined to a monastery. If the idea that the messiah would be an apostate entered Sabbatianism through the historical contingency of Tzvi’s forced conversion, Frank made that paradox the center of his philosophy and movement: redemption through sin. In The Books of Jacob, which retells and embellishes Frank’s story, Tokarczuk too probes this paradox: What do we learn from a messiah who fails, who is even repugnant?
Perhaps we simply learn to value heterodoxy itself, a reading that has stuck easily to this novel: The book’s English publisher, for example, describes Frank as a “man who spent his life battling against oppression and dogma.” This may be Tokarczuk’s own reading; in an interview with the journalist Ruth Franklin, she called heresy “an act of the free mind.” In this pointedly political reading, heresy is an over-eager child who will mature into a tolerant pluralism. And indeed, Tokarczuk seems to provide for Poland what Scholem did for the Jews: an internal history, at once indigenous and cosmopolitan, of liberal modernity. The Books of Jacob excavates a Poland tied by trade in spices, coffee, and kilim rugs to the Ottoman empire. It depicts a kingdom with a burgeoning print public in which Catholic priests jostle for access to the best Jewish mystical texts, and an encyclopedist and a poet debate the merits of Latin versus the vernacular. Women in this Poland have some measure of power: The pious noblewoman Katarzyna Kossakowska, for instance, champions the Frankists at court and helps them convert. Tokarczuk repeatedly describes Frank himself as being a stranger everywhere, indeed cultivating his own foreignness as the source of his power. (By a curious linguistic irony, Frank’s last name, which at first signified European otherness to Sephardim in the Ottoman Mediterranean, was eventually associated with Sephardi strangeness in Poland.) Without romanticizing, Tokarczuk imagines 18th-century Poland as a messy, multiethnic, pluralistic society—not at all the familiar story, in which a conservative, traditional, and stagnating country was revolutionized from the outside, especially by Russian interference.
Tokarczuk’s revision has immediate stakes, for old Poland, bemoaned by liberals, is also the object of reactionary nostalgia on the right. In Poland, for her trouble, she receives a stream of death threats; internationally, she is feted as a champion of liberal cosmopolitanism. Franklin’s New Yorker profile is entitled “Olga Tokarczuk’s Novels Against Nationalism,” while the author’s 2018 Nobel Prize citation lauds her for representing “the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.” Similarly, the critic Marta Figlerowicz calls The Books of Jacob an “implicit rebuke of the white ethno-nationalism that . . . now threatens to grab the reins of [Polish] government.” Here we glimpse a version of Scholem’s history, reduced to banality—instead of Frankism as the secret demon precipitating modernity, Jacob Frank as a freethinking champion of the downtrodden, Louis Brandeis but with a red string and orgies.
What if the redeemer comes, but the world remains unredeemed? If you have every right to expect a wedding, but get instead a funeral?
The novel supports these easy political readings, but they also have the odd effect of rendering dispensable a hefty portion of its 900-plus pages; such interpretations require a generic, mail-order heresy, never mind the details. The text itself, by contrast, is fascinated by the weird particularities of Frankism, and especially by the question: What if the redeemer comes, but the world remains unredeemed? If you have every right to expect a wedding, but get instead a funeral? In associating these questions with an alternate, more plural history of Poland, the novel serves less to make sense of Frankism than to make liberalism strange, recasting what we often take to be self-evident truths—the inalienability of individual rights, the importance of tolerance for difference—as objects of faith no less unfamiliar than Frankism’s arcane, conspiratorial secrets. By the end, it is cosmopolitan liberalism itself that appears to offer a disappointing redemption in which our faith must be renewed—a failed, or perhaps a deliberately failing, messiah.
One might wonder, after all, what business a liberal novel has with the subject of messianism. In its 19th-century heyday, the genre—with its pragmatically-minded bourgeois protagonists, solid grounding in realism, and skepticism of or disinterest in metaphysics—usually ignored the dangerous, destabilizing forces of messianic theology. In one familiar account of its birth, the novel emerged after the early modern wars of religion ended and the secular state tamed spirituality into decorous, moderate private belief. Frank would be an embarrassing guest in one of Jane Austen’s drawing rooms. Yet Tokarczuk’s novel dwells extensively on the religious content of Frankism, and especially on its affinities to ancient Gnosticism. A set of religious ideas which circulated in the first two centuries of the Christian era, Gnosticism posits that an unfriendly “demiurge”—a deity who acts in opposition to the true, good God—created our irreparably flawed, inhospitable world. The true God remains absent or hidden, but he sends Christ, or some parallel savior, as an emissary; devotees thus seek to transcend our lousy existence through incomplete glimpses of illumination. (This is a rough sketch: Gnosticism was never just one thing and, because of its esotericism, is hard to pin down.) God, as Frank and his companion and follower Nahman of Busk learn at a Sabbatian school in Smyrna, “remains so far away as to be completely inaccessible to the human senses.”
Characters in The Books of Jacob frequently allude to Gnostic ideas: Nahman, for instance, writes of learning as a child an “eternal grudge against creation. Something is not right; there is some untruth afoot . . . Certain facts have been concealed from us, no doubt, and this is why we cannot assemble the world as we know it into a single whole.” Sabbatian “strange deeds”—Tzvi once bought a large fish, dressed it as a child, and wheeled it around in a baby carriage—are calculated to pierce this veil of concealment; the bizarre is a cousin to the transcendent. But Nahman’s aspiration to assemble the world as we know it into a single whole has a second resonance here, since it also describes the aspiration of Tokarczuk’s novel itself. Beginning with its subtitle—A Fantastic Journey Across Seven Borders, Five Languages, and Three Major Religions, Not Counting The Minor Sects. Told By the Dead, Supplemented by the Author, Drawing From a Range of Books, And Aided By Imagination, the Which Being the Greatest Natural Gift Of Any Person . . . and so on—the book collects and accumulates material encyclopedically, enfolding other written narratives, like Nahman’s memoirs or the correspondence of various Catholic clergymen assessing Frankism, into its own. Its cast of characters is massive, and it unites them via free indirect discourse, that ghostly, paranormal illusion by which a narrator ventriloquizes characters’ thoughts, slipping into and out of their voices and perspectives without formal separation.
In her Nobel banquet speech, Tokarczuk complained of the dominance of “the kind of tale that narrowly orbits the self of a teller who . . . just writes about herself and through herself,” dreaming instead of “a new kind of narrator,” one
who manages to encompass the perspective of each of the characters, as well as having the capacity to step beyond the horizon of each of them, who sees more and has a wider view, and who is able to ignore time . . . This is a point of view, a perspective from where everything can be seen. Seeing everything means recognizing the ultimate fact that all things that exist are mutually connected into a single whole, even if the connections between them are not yet known to us. Seeing everything also means a completely different kind of responsibility for the world . . . differentiating between “mine” and “yours” starts to be debatable.
This imagined narrator is one of The Books of Jacob’s major ambitions, an ambition that it shares with, and perhaps learns from, Frankism’s desire to see synoptically a world that resists such unification. In this narrator, the doomed aspirations of a utopian Frankist community are realized; in this narrator is found that wholeness, impossible in our partial, fallen world; through this narrator, one transcends that world and even its second-rate deity.
This narrator is realized most fully in the figure of Yente. Magically induced by the amulet to wait, she enters a limbo state between life and death, in which her consciousness is freed of ordinary human constraints. She can “easily slide out of her body,” so that she “sees everything from above,” including events far away or in the past. The novel frequently observes her observing its occurrences, dramatizing its own narration: Here is Yente following a carriage on the road, there she is peering over the shoulder of a border official, alongside whom she inspects Frank’s passport, admiring its “beautiful penmanship.” As the passport provokes her to muse about the vast edifice of the state, “the perfect usurper, an uncompromising ruler,” Yente herself performs an alternate mode of surveillance—a universal, benevolent magic that transcends the reach of sinister bureaucracy. A “yenta” is stereotypically a gossip, a busybody who noses into areas where she does not belong. Here, the meddling of a peasant woman swells into the grandiose abstraction of the omniscient narrator, that mysterious violation of epistemological possibility. She is at once everywhere and nowhere, reaching across several centuries, from early modern Poland into the present day; she even observes Tokarczuk typing her name in The Books of Jacob itself.
Gnosticism has already grappled with the problem that the world will not be redeemed, and can therefore inoculate liberalism against its malady of disappointed hope.
It is noteworthy that the novel should have to reach for such an omniscient narrator, or that Tokarczuk should speak of it as an ambition, given that it was once a commonplace; like Pierre Menard, whom Borges imagines struggling to rewrite Cervantes’s Quixote from scratch, Tokarczuk is struggling to recover a technique Eliot, Balzac, and Flaubert employed as a matter of course. In her Nobel speech, Tokarczuk frets that the novel has been rendered obsolete by the rise of more immediate, easier media: “Why write fat novels, when you can just get into a television series instead?” She especially laments the ascendance of social media platforms, which flatter and elevate the self that she seeks, through her narrative alchemy, to overcome. Like a desperate King Saul turning to necromancy as his realpolitik maneuvering founders, realist naturalism discovers with embarrassment its need for supernatural resurrection, its desire for a miraculous banality. The liberal novel—a form of writing that emerged confidently and organically but now seems fragile and antiquated—needs the resources of a deviant messianism; in this reverse vampirism, the young, modern ideology is revitalized by a transfusion from an ancient, gnarly source. Gnosticism has already grappled with the problem that the world will not be redeemed, and can therefore inoculate liberalism against its malady of disappointed hope. In this Gnostic allegory, the contemporary world demands a novelistic synthesis it cannot provide, giving rise to the messianic fiction of the knowing narrator: Yente, the impossible redeemer, the saving truth that cannot be.
In Jewish tradition, the messiah is often described as a warrior-prince; the Talmudic rabbi Shmuel asserts that the messiah’s task is to free Israel from “servitude to the nations.” Christianity, by contrast, posits a suffering, messianic victim, though it also predicts Christ’s second, triumphal coming. Sabbatianism, unlike either, imagines a messiah who simply surrenders, who accepts his subordinate role. (I am reminded of the old joke about the Hasidic rabbi who confused the evil impulse by giving in too quickly.) This weak messiah belongs squarely to Gnosticism, which presumes that the created world is so thoroughly corrupt that it cannot be transformed, only transcended.
As is appropriate to a messianism more pacifistic than princely, The Books of Jacob is a sweeping, historical epic almost entirely without warfare. The book has been compared to Henryk Sienkiewicz’s famous historical novels valorizing the Polish nation, which epitomize the right-wing nationalist narrative with which Tokarczuk often quarrels; late in Tokarczuk’s novel, when a Frankist wedding service drowns out the cannons of the civil war raging in the late 1760s, she seems to suggest that all that blood and iron is a distraction, that this wedding is Poland’s essential history. The absence of battles also differentiates this novel from those about armed prophets, the messianic leaders whose militant movements shadow, parody, and threaten the well-ordered secular state. (Mario Vargas Llosa’s 1981 War of the End of the World, for instance—which reimagined the provincial prophet Antônio Conselheiro’s 19th-century messianic revolt against the Brazilian Republic—is an episodic, sprawling, and trickily narrated historical epic that resembles The Books of Jacob in everything except its bloodiness.) Where such stories have battles, Tokarczuk has weddings.
She adopts the symbolism of the wedding from Sabbatianism itself, beginning with Tzvi, who famously married the Torah. For this, he was expelled from the city of Salonica by its rabbis, because he had converted a staid rabbinic metaphor (“beloved of the soul, my soul is sick for your love”) into an actual, mystical wedding. Tzvi provocatively promised the erotic, messianic reunification of God and Israel. Frank outdid his predecessor; according to contemporary reports, he had his male followers kiss and fondle a naked woman who stood in the Torah’s place. Frank offers not a military, but a religious and sexual revolution; alongside these weddings are non-monogamous intimate couplings, chosen by the Lord.
In the place of what Machiavelli called the “prophet with arms,” the novel offers Yente, a messiah with eyes. Yente’s life story is a kind of Sabbatian, Gnostic myth. Over the centuries, as her body slowly petrifies in a cave that becomes a local shrine, she passively observes the world from which she gradually recedes, as impotent as Benjamin’s Angel of History. Her liminal existence, in which death is not swallowed up (as Isaiah had promised God would do) but simply held in abeyance, crystallizes the Sabbatian paradox of the redemption that makes nothing happen. Thus, The Books of Jacob, and perhaps Frankism itself, belongs to a long tradition of softening the messianic event, replacing the promise of literal revolution with metaphysical, spiritual inversion. The German Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas argued that Gnosticism emerged among those colonized by Rome after the liquidation of their local polities; its sense of an implacable, malevolent creation corresponded to the powerless alienation of those living under empire. Yente experiences this powerlessness in a scene where she watches, impossibly, her own violent conception, which occurred when her mother was raped by Cossacks in a field. She sees this as the “one day” she would change if she could only influence the past—a time traveler’s paradox that dramatizes her quarrel with a history she cannot accept, a world to which she is irrevocably alien. She, like Sabbatianism, owes her existence to a traumatic rupture. Gnostic theology is expressed through the narrator who transcends but still cannot transform the narrated reality: the idea that the world’s brokenness cannot be redeemed, only observed.
What The Books of Jacob enacts, at its heart, is the shrinking of the messianic horizon: Its theological energy is both confined within and harnessed by the liberal novel’s finely wrought machinery.
And here, in a sense, lie the limits of the political reading of this novel. Its Gnosticism may well encourage tolerance, a skepticism of received tradition, and the overcoming of our partial individual subjectivities, but this philosophy seems uniquely unsuited to promoting any active, political program. Take that moment in which Yente bemusedly watches Frank cross the Polish border, negotiating the system of passport control that has recently emerged—it’s the late 18th century—as the fiction of the state established itself. Her wonder at this newfangled custom—“Who traced the border through this thorny steppe? Who forbids people from crossing it?”—suggests its artificiality. Yet the moment does not evoke a politics, not just because all she does is watch, but also because the nation’s fictionality, from a Gnostic perspective, is merely a symptom of the world’s. The border worth worrying about does not divide Poland from its neighbors, but this world from the other, hidden one. No Frankist proposes an alternative to, or even specifically criticizes, the coalescing Polish state, nor does anyone else in this novel; its Gnosticism tends toward quietism. This quietism takes an uncomfortable turn in the book’s final pages, in which Yente’s great-grandchildren seek refuge during the Holocaust in the cave, located in western Ukraine, where her crystallized body resides. After 900 pages in which messianism’s concrete efficacy is steadfastly denied, the deus ex machina of their miraculous survival comes as a cheap, sentimental surprise. Yet this Hollywood shtick is oddly consonant with the novel’s broader commitments; this is not the story of an intervening hero, but of a magical haven in another realm of existence, a literalized Gnostic escape. This is not a liberal politics, but something more like an anti-politics, a quietist happily-ever-after.
What The Books of Jacob enacts, at its heart, is the shrinking of the messianic horizon: Its theological energy is both confined within and harnessed by the liberal novel’s finely wrought machinery. There is a powerfully resonant story here about the exhaustion and reinvigoration of both cosmopolitan liberalism and the novel form—yet I think it may not be a cause for celebration, but rather a cautionary tale. Tokarczuk has numbered the pages of her novel backward, a gimmick that discovers in Hebrew writing the “reminder that every order, every system, is simply a matter of what you’ve gotten used to,” as she writes in a note after the novel. The thing is, some versions of Jewish messianism promise an inversion considerably more concrete: the “world turned upside down, those above below and those below above,” as a rabbi in the Talmud reports dreaming. The Books of Jacob is startlingly capacious and masterfully realized—yet I found myself longing for a less easily assimilated messianism, a prophet with arms. If the entire world is a lie, then the messiah can deliver nothing material; the messianic non-event ultimately offers only a tolerant, easygoing skepticism toward things as they are, replacing the world-to-come with the novel-as-it-is.
Raphael Magarik is an assistant professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago.