For What?

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And what can a man like me do, who finds no respite in the many answers…

Published in 1905, “For What” (Al Shum Ma?), a short expression of skepticism, reflects the period of deep pessimism Hillel Zeitlin experienced during the first decade of the 20th century. Living in a period characterized by a firm belief in the power of theory and doctrine, Zeitlin’s dissatisfaction with such superficial explanations for his inner suffering is expressed powerfully throughout the essay. At times his cynicism is comical, such as in his fictional dialogue with a particularly fervent social revolutionary. Surrounded by answers and certainty, Zeitlin wants nothing more than to be free to ask his questions and express his doubts.

The original Hebrew essay may be accessed here.

For more about Hillel Zeitlin and his life, click here.


For What?

(A Skeptic’s Account)

By Hillel Zeitlin

Translated by Sam Glauber

How I envy those who have words prepared for every matter, words sufficient to clarify and explain everything, words comprising complete systems of thought, specified and determined concepts, absolute and perfect solutions.

How I envy these happy people! They have nearly no need for thought, for investigation and inquiry—how much more so are they ignorant of the suffering of he who is forever in doubt, who always seeks, perpetually suspecting of himself: “Perhaps I am mistaken…”

How I envy those who know everything and understand everything. Every matter in the world is perfectly coherent to them and they know clear, brief, and sufficient answers to all of the accursed questions…

In past decades mere words sufficed: “evolution”, “reactionism”, “progress”, “Realism”, “Positivism”, “The Three Phases”, “social organism”, “the free market”, “unimpeded development”, bonding and differentiation”, and so forth.

Now other words have entered the market: “Proletariat”, “Proletarization”, “concentration of capital”, ‘the capitalist order””, “destruction of the capitalist order”, “historical materialism”, “economic materialism”, “the psychology of the bourgeois”, “the psychology of the petite bourgeoisie”, the psychology of the proletariat”, etc. etc.

Lately other words have circulated: “agitation”, “organization”, “conspiracy”, “party tactics”, “party relations”, and the like.

There are those who know only the words and their superficial meaning, while there are those who know every single detail upon which the system depends—the common ground being that both types know the answers to everything and understand everything, everything.

— “Why is it so difficult for me to live, and both life and death arouse dread within me?”

— “Because of the economic order currently controlling the world, etc.”

— “Why does evil rule over everything with such a firm hand?”

— “Because of the economic order currently controlling the world, etc.”

— “Why are people so taken by falsehood and so hateful of all which attempts to reveal but a bit of the truth?”

– “Because of the economic order currently controlling the world, etc.”

– “Why is everything so hidden and concealed, it being impossible to know or perceive anything?”

– “Because of the economic order currently controlling the world, etc.”

And thus a single answer encompasses all of the questions and wonderments, all that holds up your spirit, all the wanderings of your heart, all that frightens and unnerves you, all that steals your sleep at night. And what can a man like me do, who finds no respite in the many answers, the words and systems which are bound within them?

What can a man do, who knows that systems of thought are exchanged and pass away while the questions remain in their place; who knows that life is so onerous and wicked, the air suffocating, the darkness so great, and there is neither recognition nor realization, no exit from the gloomy depths, as the cries break forth and none hear it, the groans shatter and no one listens?

Why does so-and-so the Zionist set out on his path filled with faith in his strength, in the holiness of his ideals, in the great labor he shall do for his people, in the glorious future, in the lofty purpose—and he is killed for a pittance someone hoped to find on him?

Why does so-and-so stand and pour forth his tears before the merciful and benevolent God from his book of Psalms—and the murderous bullet of a passing soldier pierces his skull?

Why does so-and-so the child stand and protect his younger brothers—and in shielding them he is killed by cruel hands?

Why is man abandoned so—in his life, his hopes, his ideals, his visions, and the burden of his soul?

Why is everything filled with bitter ridicule towards all which man strives, all that man loves, and all that he holds dear and respects?

Death—is it not the ultimate truth—why is it so scary and shocking, frightening and astonishing? Why does it attract and call to us, at once threatening and mocking?

Why is the ridicule so cold and cruel? Why is this ridicule so full of truth and horror?

And whose is the hand which has brought me into the world, which tortures me with every sort of abuse and torment, which attracts me with its charms and yet pushes me into a great abyss?

And what are these endless worlds, that are so distant from me and yet so close, attracting and terrifying, terrifying and attracting?

What is this long night, in its weariness, charm, darkness, glow, lightning, thunder, fear, sorrow, beauty, and might?

And what is this “Hashem”, who so speaks to our hearts yet is so unknown to us, who is the subject of such aspiration yet is so terrifying, who is so far far away from us, while in our midst, in our hearts, he lies in wait?

And what are these longings for happiness that is not, for splendor and beauty that we have not beheld, for joy that does not rule over the earth?

What are these awful dreams, whose mention makes hair bristle and blood freeze?

What is the nether-world? What is destruction? What is life? What is death?

You all say to me: “Stand here. Seek happiness in the world. Do not be frightened by your spirit, do not inquire after the wondrous. Toil, labor, improve, glorify.”

I hear your words, however I am suddenly pierced by that same bitter question: “For what?”

I go off to a corner and contemplate their systems of thought, their opinions, their proofs and words, and still I do not know: why and for what?

And life—my life, and death—my death, and all “progress” will not give my life content, nor do they distance me from the horror of death.

Every one of us goes forth on his cold, gloomy, inexplicable path straight to the world of silence. We shall surely go, each one of us by himself, and any “Socialist unity” will neither help nor rescue…

And if you will recite a thousand speeches, each man on his fellow’s grave, and if you will write a thousand obituaries, and if you will raise a thousand headstones, each man to his brother – your hearts will remain cold as frost.

And if you will make much craze and bewilderment, in order to quiet and pacify the fear of life and death – this will surely be of no use.

And if you will ever more swindle yourselves and drown the “individual” in the “collective”, or drown the individual in the impressions and delights of the moment, “He” stands with his rigid sword.

And if you will increasingly try to delight in your “rights” that you shall seek and acquire, and in all sorts of jest at once both pleasant and awful— the accursed questions stand in full force.

My request is laid out before you: Labor, toil, act, create: I, even I, shall labor and toil with you. However, let me stand for a moment to think, to doubt, to question: For what?

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