On the theme how multimedia extends in contemporary art I can offer my own story. When I wrote the children’s book entitled My Golem, which narrates the legend of the Golem of Prague, I came upon multimedia linkages. And I encountered these where I would never have expected them, and in a manner which took my breath away.
It seemed that there would be no room for talk of multimedia. A children’s book after all requires nothing but the singular, time-honoured medium of a book. It would perhaps be possible to conceive of a website, even if the content of this would still concern only text and pictures, and the multimedia aspect would end here. However, during my work on the book I gradually began to see that the theme of the Golem contains and links together various multimedia elements.
In the Czech Republic the legend of the Golem represents a part of the Old Bohemian Legends codified at the very end of the 19th century by A. Jirásek. The legends from the Jewish quarter of Prague have their origin in folklore publications of Prague Jewish legends from the mid 19th century (Sippurim or the Tales were first published in 1846). Between the Jewish quarter of Prague during the Renaissance, in which the Golem reputedly has its origins, and the 19th century, there lies a yawning gap in the sources. Rabbi Löw, the purported creator of the Golem, was a historical figure – and according to all the known information from this time he created no Golem. Nevertheless, the legend of the Golem has become a natural element of today’s general Czech national consciousness. It could be considered a historical “urban myth”. The Golem is inextricably linked to its visual form, and so it is clear to everyone here that the Golem – of course – is a clay figure with no neck.
This doesn’t take any superhuman effort or a penetrating feat of the imagination. This Golem can be seen on the T-shirts sold in the centre of Prague, this is the form taken by the Golem souvenirs, this is its outline in the pavement in front of the Golem restaurant in Maiselova street. And above all this form has been canonised in the Czech film The Emperor’s Baker – The Baker’s Emperor, which in 1951 narrated the legend of the Golem as a tale of misuse of secret powers by an irresponsible aristocracy, thankfully prevented by the people. Here the Golem is present as a living, but nevertheless stiff mass of clay, essentially a poorly made robot. (Incidentally, the Golem looks similar also on the poster of the contemporary American klezmer group Golem!, so this image is not only known within the Czech Republic). I would say that this visual element in today’s times overshadows all else. It forces into the background the story and flattens its meanings. Today’s Golem is a mere emblem, an outline or perhaps a sign, which however signifies little.
When I began work on my children’s book about the Golem, I knew that I was not interested in this type of Golem. From the beginning the Golem for me was not a lumbering clay figure which despite possessing dormant hidden powers was nevertheless a primitive prototype automaton. I was more interested in the question as to why the rabbi – the creator of the Golem – did not produce more Golems, and in addition I had an ambition as an author to invent something new.
I began to read books about golems, about the life of the renaissance Jews and inevitably about the kabbalah. I gradually became aware that today’s Golem is a modern invention. The golem meant something different over the course of the centuries, but in the 19th and 20th centuries perceptions of it have changed, also in the sense of the used media.
The Prague Golem, which I write with a capital G, was the successor in a chain of golems with a small g. The first tale of the creation of a golem evidently originates from the ancient Talmud tract called Sanhedrin. Rabbi Rava created an artificial man – a golem – whose fundamental attribute was that he could not speak. His creator sent him to his friend Rabbi Zera, who thanks to the golem’s inability to speak immediately recognised it for what it was, and left it to die. The same tract also narrates the tale of Rabbi Chanina and Rabbi Hoshai’a. These rabbis created a golem – a synthetic calf, and ate it. In no case did it concern the creation of some kind of ancient robot. The ancient scholars were rather attempting to prove their prowess and succeeded only on a partial, lower level. Thus the inability to speak, thus the anecdotal nature of the story. The ancient golem is a morality tale, with the message that human possibilities are limited. The golem which resulted was evidently not as a man should be, and most probably the calf golem was also not entirely as intended. The golem was thus then something of an embodied dream. An idea rather than a reality. Food which did not meet expectations, with the result that there was no interest in further attempts. The medium, if we can speak of one, is thus a conception.
In the early middle ages the perception of golems took another direction. The Jewish scholars of the kabbalah, a mystical doctrine, considered the possibility of creating a golem. In this they started out from the wondrous possibilities of language. Language for them was a tool of God’s Creation, in their perception letters were sacred, and the greatest supernatural power resided in the letters of God’s unutterable name. At the same time letters were the building material of the world, so in an appropriate combination thereof it should be possible to repeat the miracle of Creation. Eleazar ben Judah of Worms and other kabbalists believed that if a person uttered the correct combination of letters in the appropriate manner, inanimate matter could be brought to life. Again there is no reference to the invention of automatons here. As I understand it, they attempted by means of these considerations to emphasise the presence of God, God as the Creator. Here language plays a fundamental role, just as in the tale of the dumb golem, but in a positive sense. The kabbalist golem is no longer an embodied dream, but a creation occurring in language. This is the medium here.
In the Renaissance stories began to emerge describing the creation of a golem in folklore. These legends, which appear within the environment of the Ashkenazi Jewish community, thus in Germany, Poland and in the Czech lands, have a similar structure. In these stories the rabbi creates a golem (the Golem), which then figuratively and sometimes also literally grows above the rabbi’s head. It ceases to obey the rabbi’s commands and is possessed by a destructive rage, as we know from the Prague version, or in the Polish Chelm legend the golem begins to grow uncontrollably. These stories devote attention to the starting mechanism of the Golem. In some cases this is the inscription EMET (Hebrew for truth) on the forehead of the Golem. When one letter is erased, the inscription reads MET (i.e. dead), and the Golem is halted in its tracks. In other cases this concerns a paper – “shem” (Hebrew for name), which is placed in the Golem’s mouth. And the Chelm rabbi could no longer reach the uncontrollably growing golem’s forehead in order to change the inscription. The medium is language and text.
The role of language in the legend of the golem faded into the background in the following centuries, and in the 19th century all that remained of it was the shem in the golem’s mouth. The golem ceased to be evidence of the effectiveness of God’s language and was transformed into the result of some kind of experiment, into a prototype of a robotic household servant. At the beginning of the 20th century, evidently in the apocryphal text of J. Rosenberg of Warsaw it emerged as a defender of Jews accused of ritual murder. Until this time it did not have such a role, and this is a modern invention, clearly linking to the growing anti-Semitism of the time. From a realm in which the medium of language played the outstanding role, we came to a place within the socio-political arena.
At the same time the beginning of the 20th century brought a need to depict the golem, either for the purpose of book illustration or in film. In films (e.g. from 1920 and 1936) and in book form (in the illustrations by H. Steiner-Prag in G. Meyrink’s novel from 1915), the Golem looks like a lumbering human giant, a grotesque figure, or as a somewhat, wild, emaciated phantom. The importance of language in perception of the golem disappears entirely, and it is characteristic that in the film The Emperor’s Baker – The Baker’s Emperor, it is controlled only by a ball, thus by a kind of mechanical tool, a key, and not a verbal code.
The contemporary Czech book and artistic representations (e.g. E. Hudečková and T. Bím: Bratříček Golem (Brother Golem, 1993), H. Neborová and A. Born: The Golem (2006)) continue within the secular conception of the Golem as an “almost-man”. The Golem loses its some of its fearsomeness, and though it is somewhat lacking in wit and subtlety, otherwise it is presented an entirely good-natured lummox. The visual conception is usually inspired by the concept of the Golem as a clay figure, as can be seen in the film The Emperor’s Baker – The Baker’s Emperor (T. Bím), or emphasises its almost human form (A. Born). In Meyrink’s novel the Golem was described more opaquely, rather as a prelude to the reader’s feverish imagination. During the course of the 20th century the depiction of the Golem took on a materialistic form, and the Golem became virtually synonymous with a mass of clay.
Everything I have studied has led me to the conclusion that the Golem must look different from this established image. Until the book illustrations and the film depiction the form of the Golem in legend was usually briefly outlined. It looks almost like a man, and that is all. It gradually began to seem to me that it was not important as to how the Golem appeared to its creators. For these after all it played the role of a document of a divine miracle. For those outside the Jewish community it meant something entirely different. Evidence of mysterious Jewish powers, exceptional skills, or black magic. Each could choose according to his or her own imagination, and the Golem presumably looked different according to the imagination of each individual. For this reason my Golem, when it is revealed, has neither the form of a man nor that of a clay figure. It is rather the projection of the individual fears of the enemies of the Jewish town. It does not appear before the eyes, but behind them – at the moment I am writing this essay the illustrations for the book are only just being created, and I have to confess that I am curious as to how the artist will deal with this task…
As I have intimated, the irony is that in today’s conceptions of the Golem is almost entirely only visual, whereas over the centuries in its fundamental form it was not as such. Illustration or film must always attempt a visual representation. By precisely the same principle I have worked with language – Czech – in writing the story, and had no other medium at my disposal. However, I became aware that each medium encounters its own limitations with regard to the theme of the Golem. Understanding the Golem lies beyond the fixed contours of the story, beyond the boundaries of language, just as its form takes on greater importance where it resembles nothing specific. The attempt to write a children’s book gradually began to appear to me as a multimedia project, only seemingly reliant on two media.
Finally, after studying the available literature, I became aware of yet another level of the attempt to process the legend of the Golem. I was forced to notice the extent to which this concerns a religious matter. If the creation of the Golem was confirmation of a divine miracle, what can my secular book, intended strictly speaking for amusement, offer? I felt this to be an antagonism which must be overcome, out of respect for the spiritual sources of the story. I thus studied as much as I could from the life of Rabbi Löw, who is considered the creator of the Golem. In this I attempted to maintain the maximum credibility as regards the life of the Prague Jewish community at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries. I read what can be found today on the kabbalist conceptions of golems.
I was helped by the experience which perhaps every practising writer or poet is familiar with. This concerns a peculiar moment in which letters and words begin to reveal a kind of hidden structure. It seems that the story or poem which is in the process of being created was in fact written long ago, and has been waiting somewhere to be translated into reality. As if by drawing back the curtains, opening a door or some other eyes the writer had succeeded in opening up before him a universe of connections. I do not wish to say here that the experience of a modern writer is the same as that of a medieval cabbalist, but only that each of them has his own experience with the special significance of language as a system, which refers to another system (or systems). Writing is not a mere reflection of these. Each writer wishes for his scribblings on paper or hammering of the keys to be part of a process of creating something real, and each writer suspects this possibility. The cabbalist conceptions of the power of language seemed very familiar to me. When I place words next to one another, I bring something to life. On the other hand, God’s language and secular language are clearly two entirely different tongues? Or are they?
Thus the story of the Golem in my hands came up against the limits of the medium of language, encountered also the boundaries of the visual medium and further still cast ambiguity upon an understanding of this linguistic medium. Perhaps I take this a little too seriously, and something of a similar nature applies to all writing, in that writing embraces the possibilities and contradictions of various media. Perhaps a multimedia approach is a natural, even necessary component of the text. Its hidden possibilities, without which it could never be born. And the environment in which this multimedia form claims its own space, is however the reader’s imagination.
Translation by Ashley Davies
Mgr. Marek Toman - poet and writer /CZ/