I just read Aharon Appelfeld’s memoir, The Story of a Life (in English). And now I think I have more of an appreciation for a profession that I once dismissed as total kookiness.
I have met, on separate occasions, two women in Israel who describe their line of work as “craniosacral therapy.” They tell me this is a method of using the touch of the hands to help the body heal from trauma. “Just as the mind remembers, the body remembers what it has been through,” one of the practitioners I met told me. “Craniosacral therapy heals the body of its memory of trauma.”
“But how does the body remember?” I asked this woman, thinking that this sounded like the twentieth-century equivalent of phreno-mesmerism.
“How does the mind remember?” she shot back. “We have cells all over the body, not just in the brain, and cells register impact.”
I was convinced that all of this was total bunk until I read Appelfeld, who describes the trauma of living in the forests of Poland at the age of ten during the war years. Again and again he returns to this theme of how the body remembers, as the following two excerpts attest:
“Of the war years I remember little . . . this is the limit of conscious memory. But the palms of one’s hands, the soles of one’s feet, one’s back, and one’s knees remember more than memory. Had I known how to draw from them, I would have been overwhelmed with what I have seen. On some occasions I have been able to listen to my body, and then I would write a few chapters, but even they are just fragments of a pulsing darkness that will always be locked inside me.”
“I do not remember entering the forest, but I do remember the moment when I stood before a tree laden with red apples. I was so astonished that I took a few steps back. More than my conscious mind does, my body seems to remember those steps backward. If ever I make a wrong movement, or unexpectedly stumble backward, I see the tree with the red apples.”
Appelfeld’s sense of awe at the body’s capacity for remembrance is accompanied by a tremendous distrust of words. In wartime, he writes, only madmen speak. In the face of hunger, thirst, and the terrible physical reality of bodies dropping left and right, words are rendered superfluous. I shall save this passage for a drash on “lo ish devarim anochi”:
“I’ve carried with me my mistrust of words from those years. A fluent stream of words awakens suspicion within me. I prefer stuttering, for in stuttering I hear the friction and the disquiet, the effort to purge impurities from the words, the desire to offer something from inside you. Smooth, fluent, sentences leave me with a feeling of uncleanness, of order that hides emptiness.”
But like Moshe, Appelfeld is nonetheless a master of words and language. I had no interest in reading a Holocaust memoir–I have read more than my share already–but I fell in love with Appelfeld spellbinding rhetorical ability when I heard him speak at Yad Ben Zvi last month. The story he tells in his memoir is essentially the same as the story he tells in Tzili, and probably in all his other books as well. But no matter. It is not what he is telling us but how he tells it to us that is the source of his genius. Here he says so himself:
“Even then, I was labeled a Holocaust writer. There is nothing more annoying. A writer, if he’s a writer, writes from within himself and mainly about himself, and if there is any meaning to what he says, it’s because he’s faithful to himself—to his voice and his rhythm. Theme, subject matter—all these are by-products of his writing, not its essence. I was a child during the war. This child grew up, and all that happened to him and within him continued into his adulthood: the loss of his home, the loss of his language, suspicion, fear, the inhibitions of speech, the feelings of alienation in a foreign country. It was from these that I wove my fiction. Only the right words can construct a literary text, not subject matter.”
Appelfeld has the right words, for sure. They crawl underneath your skin and stay there for a long time, for as long as the body remembers.