The Visitors

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A grievous and terrible mistake is made by all those who think that being engulfed in other worlds disturbs one’s sober view of visible reality.

Hillel Zeitlin’s short essay “The Vistors” (HaOrḥim) appeared in 1905 in the Vilna-based daily HaZman, where Zeitlin served as an editor. The essay was included in the second volume of Zeitlin’s collected writings, published in 1912. Since then it has never reappeared in print, nor has it previously been translated.

Written in 1905, in the years immediately preceding his return to traditional observant life, “The Visitors” sheds light on Zeitlin’s inner world at that time. That same year, he published a serialized monograph on Nietzsche, as well as several prominent literary responses to the ongoing pogroms afflicting eastern European Jewry. One can sense his own idealistic longings for truth and human perfection, a longing which would not be satisfied by the philosophic tradition he had dedicated the past decade mastering, but rather by the greatness of character he found depicted in the great works of classical and Russian literature.

I like this essay because of its call for transcending the tragic and limited reality of our own lives, as well as for the priority it gives to experience over “book knowledge”. We must “hear the murmurs of life, its whispers and rustles.” Zeitlin seeks enlightenment within this world, as he writes:

“Who is most qualified to understand reality? I would say: one who has lived life to the fullest, thinking and feeling more than all others.”

I believe that in Zeitlin’s term “visitor” he sums up his own place within the world he inhabited. While he devoted his life to public service as a journalistic agitating alternatively for Jewish political autonomy and religious revival, he felt himself apart, a visitor who would ultimately “do [his] part and sink into the depths of eternity.”

The original Hebrew essay may be accessed here.

For more about Hillel Zeitlin and his life, click here


The Visitors

(A Lyrical Philosophical Discussion)

By Hillel Zeitlin

Translated by Sam Glauber

For I am a stranger with thee — (Psalms 39:13)

Our ancestors called the world we inhabit “The world of falsehood”.

The truth they hoped to find only in “The world of truth”.

Nowadays, we are far-removed from such pessimism. Even as we know all too well that the sum total of all deeds and speech is falsehood, falsehood, falsehood, we are ashamed to express this so unequivocally. We choose rather to inquire deeply into the roots of all things and their manner of coming into being, the blind will, the lack of awareness, the enchantment, the vision, the beautiful illusion, the universal folly, the tragedy, the Übermensch, the lowly man, the life within man, the beauty within life, the beautiful tragedy and all other sorts of beauty, the ethereal and most fine, the highest and most transcendent.

I don’t mean to say that we are worse than our ancestors: to the degree that life is made more complicated, to the degree that knowledge becomes more complex and convoluted, to the degree that culture is elevated and indulged, to the degree that the passions are more defined and rich, to the degree that life’s needs have further increased — it is ever more difficult to satisfy them. To the degree that the longings of the spirit become more perplexing and profound, it is more difficult to satisfy them with simple aphorisms and one straightforward view of the world in its entirety, of life and man. We are compelled to inquire, we are compelled to ask and ask once more. We are compelled to contemplate every angle and every point. We cannot ignore even the smallest detail. Life issues a powerful call for fervor, for constant and incessant contemplation, to exchange thoughts and doubts at every moment and hour.

What do I like about our ancestors outlook?

This outlook pleases me because it concisely points to reality on the one hand, and vision on the other hand.

“The world of falsehood” and “The world of truth” — Behold, before you lies a whole expression of the world as it is and the world as it should be, as it is revealed to us at the magical moments of wonder, the moments of respite between storm and calamity, the special moments of light, the moments of sinking into eternity, the moments of silence, expectation, when the lightning bolt flashes, when the tempestuous world passes over and God is revealed from amidst the whirlwind…

To the degree that these moments of wonder become increasingly ever-present, so shall you more clearly understand the world of reality, glimpsing “the vision of that world”[1]. 

A grievous and terrible mistake is made by all those who think that being engulfed in other worlds disturbs one’s sober view of visible reality.

This mistake, which is rooted in the souls of even the most erudite, the most eminent and broad-minded; this mistake, which is so deeply rooted in our hearts that it is considered a complete and absolute truth which cannot be contested; this mistake, which only with difficulty may be refuted through logical proofs and ordinary investigation, for it is gripped and confounded by a thousand errors, brought about every moment from the influences of life and existence; this mistake is removed from our hearts at the moment we attentively contemplate mankind’s greatest works of literature.

I speak not of prophetic revelations, wherefrom, admittedly, it is possible to learn a great deal in this matter. I do not speak of them for they are excessively holy and transcendent, and it is very difficult to view them as a mere parable or example…

Let us come down many degrees. Let us take a look at the lyrical works of every generation. Look, pray, with a clear eye at all the elders, visionaries, seers, holy ones, mystics, and yurodivy [2] in the works of Homer, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Ibsen and the like. If you examine carefully you will see that all of these characters are taken from the very essence of life itself. It is these individuals who, owing to their engulfment in the eternal vision, behold reality as it truly is, while still being familiar with all the peaks and valleys of “The world of falsehood”.

They are invariably the wisest and most genuine advisors, the most prescient and farsighted. Every word which leaves their mouth bears the force of history, every light remark is a humble prophecy. Happy is the man who listens to their words, and woe to the man who disobeys them!

They are specifically solicited regarding worldly matters, day-to-day occurrences and deeds, those vexing matters relating to relationships both personal and diplomatic, and physical matters most difficult and vile. They answer and give counsel, teach and advise, comfort and enlighten.

However, how does this image correspond with another image which we behold, namely that of the saints who do not know left from right of all that is done in the world, who appear to lack even a child’s comprehension when speaking of worldly matters?

How can we connect this image with that of the various idlers we encounter on every sidewalk, who shall neither contemplate nor reflect upon all that is done in their days?

In order to determine for ourselves these personae, we must make a sharp distinction between those who lack cognition, and those who transcend the intellect…

These saints and idlers lack cognition of worldly matters. That is to say, they have not come to recognize reality, to understand causes and effects, to apprehend the underlying connections between their many visions. They know not of raging lust nor of great desire. They know not of joy and beauty, of charm and tenderness, of indulgence and delicacy, of adornment and glory. They do not understand sin and its charms, its likenesses and appearances, its states and conditions. They do not understand life, for they have never truly lived. They do not perceive life, for they are submerged in far-off affairs. They distant themselves from life, and life distances itself from them. When they are thrust into issuing an opinion of life they engender laughter and scorn, or are exploited by the strongmen of the world, who utilize their simplicity and primitivity for their own benefit.

The seers and visionaries of the exemplary literature we mentioned above are of an entirely different sort. These visionaries have passed jointly through the seven chambers of hell and the seven heavens. They sense and perceive everything. Their eyes discern all. They know all the tempests of life, its murmurings and qualities.

Alongside this, they know much which lies beyond the knowledge of mortals.

They envision much which lies above and beyond what the intellect may apprehend.

They live amongst people and take a part in all their deeds, enduring all their travails.

They see every deed, every occurrence, and they are comrades in pain!

They are revealed one time as wisemen and counselors, one time as teachers, one time as healers, one time as priests, one time as soothsayers and comforters, and yet another time as enchanters and dreamers.

They help one to cry when the pain is too great and the heart numb.

They bring faith and hope to the hearts of men, love and brotherhood, happiness and rejoicing.

They draw down the heavens and present their farthest reaches to man…

They relate their dreams to men, who listen but shall not understand.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” [3]

These wayfarers we have discussed are neither sages, philosophers, nor poets—they are of a different essence.

More precisely: they are all at once both philosophers, priests, poets, and painters, endowed beyond all these with a unique sense of perception. This perception grasps life in its totality, as well as the nature of every detail, the collective suffering of life and the pain of every individual creation.

Even more so, compassion is their dominant trait. And this compassion in their heart is different from both ordinary compassion and that of Schopenhauer.

Their compassion differs from that of Schopenhauer for it is not abstract and logical like his, being satisfied neither by his aesthetic outlook and silent suffering [4], nor by the musical echoes of Wagner [5]. On the contrary, the compassion of these special individuals is completely active and sensory.

Unlike ordinary compassion it is neither self-centered nor crude, having no desire to be revealed nor seen, as human weakness often engenders.

This compassion is self-effacing, laboring to cheat itself so as to appear otherwise and be called by a different name…

This compassion has its root in the clear-sighted observation of life and its inner qualities, in singular solidarity, in a vivid sense of our collective folly, in feeling the shame and indignity of life’s ugliness.

Let us put aside the majestic personae of the prophets and seers of Homer, Aeschylus and Sophocles—they are exceedingly transcendent, exceedingly beautiful. Let us put aside the various prophets of Shakespeare—they are exceedingly profound. Let us put aside the various mystics—they are exceedingly holy. Let us rather pay heed to two visionaries who are comprehendible in our times—Zosima the Elder of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Gorky’s Luka [6].

Take note of these two elderly monks (Zosima and Luka each in his own way). Contemplate their lives, words, and habits: to what extent they understand life and its bitter reality; how close they themselves are to life, participating; to what extent they know the deprivation of every creature; to what extent they toil to alleviate suffering; to what extent they are given over to the slightest issue of their miserable brethren. And even more so: to what extent at known junctures they live in other worlds, foreseeing other visions (Zosima and Luka each in his own way). They look out at existence as from a distance, as visitors. They wander eternally, coming from some other world to which they shall later return.

Zosima said, “Man’s soul came into into the world in order to act out of love.”

His soul felt herself to have come from another world, and here she needed to sow the light taken with her from the highest place.

Who is most qualified to understand reality? I would say: one who has lived life to the fullest, thinking and feeling more than all others.

Now, which people might you say come closet to manifesting this ideal?

You might say: common-folk. A person of the masses found in the heart of hustle and bustle of life; a person who has weathered every adventure and lived to tell the tale; a person with a simple and natural lust for life, loving, desiring, longing for lengthy days, wandering in memory of the dead, filled with rage and fury, absorbing life’s blows, situated in the marketplace, pursuing and pursued, pushing and pushed, crushing and crushed—You would say: this person is in touch with reality!

Slow down, sir! This person has but contradictory and messy emotions. He does not know reality, for he does not think. He does not think for he lacks even a moment to think and reflect. He thinks for a moment—and the storm of life bears him away…

You might say: the scholar. No sir! The scholar is only well-versed in the one field of his specialty. He does not know other fields, or at the very least knows them only on a superficial level. And even someone who knows every field, such as Humboldt [7], is bound in knowledge by the limits of their scientific method. He only knows that which may be gauged by the senses, experimentation, and precise investigation.

The primary point: the eternal submergence in books alone by necessity distances one from life and its understanding. The scholar seeks out the entire world as though it were some sort of inanimate substance. The stream—flowing and charging, uprooting and tempestuous—shall not reach him. He has no grasp of life’s many colors. He cannot hear the murmurs of life, its whispers and rustles. He does not feel the dynamism and change of every moment. He only knows that which has already been. He knows facts, but he has no knowledge of the tapestry being woven together in every moment. He knows on a factual level that matter comes into being and changes, but he has difficulty grasping the actual moment of becoming, the actual moment of change. It is difficult for him to grasp that which has not yet received a tangible determined form, for such things can only be felt. For the scholar, even when he feels, does not believe in his feelings.

Moreover, the scholar does not think much, if by thinking we mean to say a constant and never-ending creative process, creating and destroying worlds.

Listen, if you would, to the words of that most exceptional of scholars, Darwin. He said about himself, “I am turned into a sort of machine for observing facts and grinding out conclusions.”

Darwin excelled, at the very least, in his ability to produce such all-encompassing conclusions on the basis of facts. Ordinary scholars just know the facts and no more…

But even on such an advanced stage as Darwin’s, is there any true creative act? Is there any movement, from the ever-flowing wellsprings? Is there any of the pain of thought, the tragedy of thought? Is there any primal innovation, any ex nehilo creation?

You might say: the philosopher. The philosopher has indeed grasped and perceived beyond the scholar. However, every philosopher, as we understand the term, has his own system. He invents or chooses for himself a particular theory and fits within it all that he can. In the end, he knows only that which he can fit into his system. More than that he does not know, nor does he desire to know.

After all the inquiry and tenets, life is but the game of the Creator, and it cannot be reduced to fit into the Sodomite bed [8] of theory…

You might say: the painter or the poet. These last ones are indeed creators. They perceive life far more than the scholar or the philosopher.

However, even these last ones are of many levels: a large number of them are merely skilled at imitation. They imitate the great artistic works. Many of them have a limited knowledge of art, not knowing that which lies beyond their circle. Some of them do indeed produce new creations at every moment; however they are rather generic images which fail to achieve recognition. In any case, many of these works aren’t distinguished by any means. Dostoevsky, for example, created Raskolnikov [9] and Karamazov, and when he came to further his thoughts he returned to the established slavophilic models.

There are indeed artists who excel in every endeavour, such as Goethe, but such greats, recipients of the kiss of God, are exceedingly rare such that they cannot be placed in the ordinary category of artists and poets. They are not sown by the blessed Holy One in every generation, for these great ones are born many generations apart from each other.

Therefore, I do declare that a sober understanding of reality may only be found in the hearts of those visionaries and seers described above. I call them “Visitors”.

They are the people who think and feel to the greatest extent. They live the most, suffer the most, but simultaneously think and understand the most.

They have not even the slightest trace of stubbornness, nor do are they ashamed to admit to themselves and others that they have erred. They do not come with claims of greatness, nor do they construct grand theories. They do not erect tributes to their spirit, nor do they proclaim to people, “Life and death are in our hands.” They do not aspire to rule, nor do they aspire to glory. They do indeed bear pride in their hearts, but this pride has no relation to ordinary arrogance. It is an entirely different pride. It is the pride of a free man.

They know the depths of evil. They know it cannot be displaced. They know that this evil grows stronger at every moment, yet they strive to limit and harness it to whatever degree they may.

They strive to heal, to comfort, to placate, to appease, to draw near, to illuminate, to give warmth.

They do their part and go on their way.

They do their part and sink into the depths of eternity.

[1] Zohar 3:169a

[2] “Fool for Christ”. A form of Eastern Orthodox asceticism in which the yurodivy, or Holy Fool, acts in a self-deprecating and socially unconventional manner as a means of arousing repentance. Yurodivy were a common theme in 19th century Russian literature, appearing throughout the works of Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, amongst others. (See S.A. Ivanov, Holy Fools in Byzantium and Beyond)

[3] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1.5.167-8.

[4] See Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Basis of Morality.

[5] Likely a reference to Richard Wagner’s opera, Parsifal.

[6] The main character of Maxim Gorky’s play, The Lower Depths.

[7] Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was a highly influential Prussian explorer and geographer.

[8] A reference to the legendary tale of the wickedness of the people of Sodom, who would amputate their guests’ legs in order that they fit into a truncated bed. See Talmud Babli, Sanhedrin 109b

[9] The protagonist of Crime and Punishment.

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