The danger is that the critical mind
becomes inured, even addicted,
to marginalisation. The outpost
situation threatens to promote
trans-historical irony. . . .
Bento wondered if he were perhaps moving too fast. If he walked too quickly through the stalls he would look like a man in a hurry, and so be quoted the highest prices. He took a deep breath and began coughing. As he caught his breath he turned his signet ring around his finger, slowly then slower. It relaxed him to feel the raised letters there: caute- "cautiously," "carefully." His pace slowed and he looked cautiously around him. A man in a Spanish hat, its wide brim pledged in the very latest fashion, sat between two bins of papery-looking onions. There was no sign to tell Bento what variety they were, but he lingered. All onions sweated out sicknesses and helped right the humors, which could so easily get out of balance even if all one was doing was sitting at a wheel, waiting for a knock at the door. Bento's feigned patience was short-lived. He soon carried away a small net bag of the dandy's poor offerings.
It was important to eat balancing foods, to keep healthy. The scabby, omega-legged sailors who swarmed up in waves from the docks into Amsterdam proper were a steady reminder of that, but Bento would have been mindful of the pestilences about even without them. The maids of the town's burgomasters had lately taken up the vile English habit of throwing slops off their balconies, aiming at gutters and canals with only half an eye, the bright bronze hypotenuse of their toss splashing down to leave a rusted-colored stripe across the cobbles. But then, Amsterdam's burgomasters always let themselves be infected with any new fashion a wide-bottom ship might breeze in with. Just after his own birth, a mania for tulip bulbs had erupted here, the rarest of the breed kept locked in chests, or sold at rates ten-fold what Bento's patrons granted him a year to live on to do his thinking and to buy glass to grind lenses for his optic experiments. The tulip craze had been quick to die, as well, after three short years of furious life. All those hoarded bulbs, withering away in their gilded chests.
Bento smiled. Excommunications were the new fashion, brought in by ship from the Iberian peninsula, where hooded, frothing inquisitors banished, maimed and executed with breathtakingly high scores on the vertical axis of inventiveness. Most Jews in Amsterdam knew someone who had fallen to the Spaniards' fires. There was Abraham Bernal, burned in Cordova; Yithzak da Alameida Bernal in Galicia; Judah the Believer, and more. Shock and misery might fade, but they always left behind their fertile seeds of example.
Not that there had not always been homegrown persecution and punishment. Even he, as a foolish young boy, had helped drive the honest skeptic Uriel da Costa through the streets, running after him to strike his calves with sticks as if Da Costa were a hoop Bento and his pack of friends could set rolling downhill. Bento would have liked to apologize to that poor soul, but he had committed suicide soon after his excommunication from the community. His calves may still have showed the purple blooms from Bento's sticks when he died.
There was as yet only limited zeal for the imported styles of punishment among the Jews of Amsterdam. There was absolutism, but it was not of the murderous sort. The Jews here remained dazed by having been spun through two mass conversions in the past century-in hot Spain they had been forced to convert to Catholicism and then had fled to the cool Netherlands, where they had fallen back out of that hard gilded world into the plain black broadcloth of the Mosaic covenant again. His own banishment had so far been subtle, selective, gastronomic. He no longer received invitations to dinner from prominent friends from the Keter Torah yeshiva. They all knew how to come by the best: bless a chicken, get the finest ground fish from beneath the counter-the simple geometry of community. Bento felt sure he was becoming a point the in-good-standing lines no longer dared to intersect. The last good meal he had had was three weeks behind him, at the table of his long-time friend, Gershom. Now he mostly ate Amsterdam's poor onions for his health, and waited for the heavy knock on his door to take him to task not just for heresy, but for heresy against the usual-the quasi-official, even necessary-heresies, freethinking and simple deism. These last only refused the form, but left the Divine Nature. Cowardice. But such half measures, too, were part of Amsterdam's half-hearted character. If one's ideas were serious, important, divisions would be extreme, opinions, too and, yes, even punishments. It was simple, as tautological as a math equation: great weight on one side called up great weight on the other, or the equation was wrong. Bento began peeling a small onion as he walked. Onions were stronger, zestier in his ancestors' Galicia, he knew, but he was settling for the tasteless onions of Amsterdam exile in exchange for being able to breathe its air free of the smoke of human fat, to have a space in which to think and write in its relative freedom. Bento smiled-and, yes, their tastelessness was a chastisement, a reminder of how weak were his own moves toward defiance. He shrugged and took a bite.
Bento had long ago learned to keep his ideas to himself, kept them close as the silk lining of his vest, and certainly never show anyone his writings-they were clearer and sharper than any lens he had ever cut. He kept up his dues, paid his stuivers. When there were motions to be gone through, he had always gone through them to the best of his abilities. Still, he knew that every thought he had somehow leaked out into the world, through the cast of his eyes, by way of the unspoken words that stirred in his throat like chicks in eggs, even by the way he smoothed his dress collar over his breast. He felt that others knew full well what he had come to realize, and if they did not mention it that was only because they did not want the trouble of witnessing against him. Who needs such trouble in Amsterdam? But there had been a scattering of occasions . . . most recently at Gershom's when the sweet, dark wine and the smell of the high stacks of codices on the shelves around them had made Bento expansive, given him a faith in the rationality and open-mindedness of his fellow man that he never fell prey to in his sober moments.
"It is usually at this point in our evenings," Gershom had said, an unfamiliar tone of challenge in his voice, "that you begin to tell me about the inconsistencies, the impossibilities, the contradictions in the scriptures. Gwinda served us a new dish for dinner tonight; do you have something new to offer for your portion?"
"Perhaps I could tell you how I, too, find an honest moral or two in the scriptures," he had answered. "Find them at the meeting point of mind, page and material world."
"Two things, Baruch." Gershom often used Bento's formal Hebrew name as if it were a mooring line that might pull him in. "One: yes, a drunken philosopher's voice carries as far as any other drunk's; please don't shout. Two: yes, even if for you it is nothing more than an exercise, tell me an honest moral you find in these pages."
"There is the mention of shasher in Jeremiah 22, and Ezekiel 23."
"Shasher? Red dye, vermillion. That's your example?"
"Dear Gershom, do you know where that red dye would have come from? From the dried bodies of the female kermes ilices, tiny insects with no antenna or legs, insects that shine like the scales of fish. They cling to Mediterranean trees and harm no one, do no more than live happily on oak bark, much as I do on the tasteless onions of Amsterdam, all tiny cogs in the machinery of life along the shores. How many tiny lives went under the pestle for each vat of red? The shutters of the vain rich man, the robes of the Chaldean kings that tempted Aholibah into whoredom-all from these blind, lame insects, your God's defenseless creatures. There's a moral I can understand."
When Bento left that night he suspected that he had gone too far this time, stepped outside the geometry of their genial evenings, outside the common areas of their friendship, but he wasn't sure. Gerhsom had long known the outlines of Bento's ideas, that that which might be called God was not a deity, but all the world we know and all the world we don't know, all the universe, and so we can never be separate from what frightened men deified. But Gershom didn't want to know the details, didn't want to read the axioms. He particularly did not want to see the triumphant geometries Bento had created to prove his point. Bento knew he had to be guarded, but he had worked long on these ideas, had sweated them into the world, and wished Gershom had been brave enough to ask to see some. They were lovely. But Gershom waved it all away. And Bento had not had an invitation from his friend since the night of the conversation about the shasher. Sitting at his grinding table, Bento felt himself smiling.
He stayed at his wheel, his feet pumping, for the next hour, polishing the lenses he had just ground for Huygens. Bento made all of the astronomer's lenses, and he had confided to Bento that he thought the planet Saturn was ringed with . . . well, something, but needed better lenses to prove it. Bento also had to finish up the lenses he had just finished coaxing into the gently curved shape that would compensate for Rabbi Morteria's nearsightedness. If Gershom wanted lessons, Bento thought, his grinding of such lenses for the rabbi surely qualified. His hands were sweating lightly inside his shiny silk gloves as he worked. The tiny stars of ground-off glass would shred them in very short order-no pair lasted more than a few weeks-but the silk kept the glass from getting under his skin, and were dark enough to show him where the dangerous grit gathered. He let no one into his workshop when he was grinding. He told them it was for the safety of their eyes, their lungs, but in truth it was his vanity. When he ground lenses he wore the delicate gloves, an unraveling skullcap a winter wind had put in his path, and a wide swath of silk across his mouth and nose; a string from its top corners encircled his head to keep it in place. It was a length of the same pale yellow silk from which he had his gloves made. The rectangle of silk was meant to keep his weak lungs, the tendency toward consumption he had inherited from his parents, safe. It worked well; he could actually feel the weight of it grow, pushing down on the bridge of his nose as the glass grit lodged in the fibers. Practical as it was-as he was-he didn't care to have anyone see him veiled and gloved like a harem girl in a lewd woodcut. (His tutor had told him that he had first heard of such women in the very same year that the tulip folly erupted. Bento wondered what a geometry of that conjunction might look like.) He would take off the diaphanous veil (and the ratty skullcap) for delivery men and for guests, not that he had ever had many guests any more. He was careful only to show the world his bare face; never his working veil.
The knocking came at sundown. He had long finished polishing lenses for the day and was having his dinner at his workbench, sipping boiling hot tea and buffing his ring. He stopped his wheel, laid the ring on the bench, took off his veil and skullcap and went to the door, walking perhaps a little too quickly.
Bento knew the messenger, had in fact the year before ground the lenses that now focused his dark glare on Bento's face. He was Solomon the Waterboy. So great was his dedication to the wise men of the synagogue that at thirty years old he was still Solomon the Waterboy, known for carrying buckets of water to cool the Council's feet. He attended to their every need like a dutiful son. Who was it that said that messengers are all children and so all messages are delivered in immature form and riddled with mistakes? He couldn't remember. Solomon was very thin and he wore a plain black hat; a long stalk, topped by a beard as round as a basket, he looked like a soot-caked sunflower. He carried an envelope, red wax sealed, mottled like parchment. He held it out to Bento, who took it with a smile.
"Don't leave," he said as the messenger started to turn away. "Do you know what is in here, Solomon?"
"Not the future of a good man," Solomon said.
"I'll read it to you."
"That's not necessary."
"But it is, Solomon. Think: it's not addressed to me. It's addressed to you and everyone in your community. I understand why they all couldn't come-the streets of Amsterdam are narrow. You'll have to do." Solomon folded his hands together and stood very still. Bento began to read to him,
"The Gentleman of the Ma'amad make known to you, that having for some time having known the evil opinions and works of-
"I see they have used the full Hebrew form of my name in cutting me off from the community. Is this irony, Solomon? Are the Ma'amad capable of irony?"
Solomon said nothing; Bento took an onion out of his coat pocket where he had put it to keep it safe from glass fragments, and continued:
"-they have endeavored by various ways and promises to draw him back from his evil ways; and not being able to remedy him, but on the contrary, receiving every day more news. . .
"Hmm. These accusations, these insipid events, make me sound little more than a common gossip," Bento said, taking a bite of the onion, reading silently, shaking his head with disappointment. "Ah, here it is, at last!"
"By the decree of the Angels and the word of the Saints we ban, cut off, curse and anathemize . . . with all the curses written in the Torah: Cursed be he by day and cursed by night, cursed in his lying down and cursed in his waking up, cursed in his going forth and cursed in his coming in. . . .
"This reads more like a nursery rhyme than a kherem," Bento said.
"We warn that none may contact him orally or in writing, nor do him any favor, nor stay under the same roof with him, nor read any paper he made or wrote."
Bento frowned; Solomon smiled. Bento turned the paper over; it was blank on the back.
"What is this weak tea?" Bento said in exasperation." There is no sign here of things having come to a boil."
"Yes, it was decided that your thoughts, your habits, called out for nothing more than mercy. We decided on this, this. . . ."
"This tailored response, so as not to shame you, but to simply isolate you, throw clean cold water in your face, restore you from your foolishness."
"Foolishness? You call my thoughts foolishness?""
Solomon's eyebrows moved. "More vanity," he said. "I don't know your thoughts, and don't care to. If I met your thoughts on the street I would spit and cross to the other side. But I can't help seeing you, can't help noticing how you live. So," he paused, only for a moment, then went on, "at the council table I spoke up before they could dip the first pen." His fingers moved ever so slightly, a sketch of a gesture in Bento's direction. "I reminded them how you eat tulip bulbs and believe they are onions."
"Tulip bulbs?" Bento looked down at the half-eaten shape in his hand.
"Don't be too ashamed. They do look something alike, I suppose." He shrugged. "To the foolish."
Solomon's face now changed. Bento was startled to see that the expression on the man's face-the man, as Bento understood, behind the dismissive tepidity of his excommunication-was now that of indifference, of complete disinterest. Saying nothing more, Solomon turned and walked up the narrow street.
Bento felt the papery wrap of the bulb in his palm. He had known there was a resemblance between some onions and tulip bulbs, of course; everyone marked it. Was it only that he was not expecting to see bulbs-for years they had all been locked up, hoarded, not displayed in stalls for shoppers to grow familiar with-so he had seen onions? They had been tasteless, of course, but he had expected nothing more from something to be found in cool Amsterdam. So, he had known them so well that he hadn't seen (or tasted) them at all. Solomon had been right; he had been foolish. He pocketed the bulb and closed the door.
Bento propped up the kherem against the back of his writing desk. He sat in his writing chair and picked up his pen. The night before he had headed a new sheet of foolscap Imaginatio: The confused knowledge gained from the senses, from hearsay, from association, and other most unreliable sources. He had a sudden, violent coughing fit. Catching his breath, he wrote, Two thoughts, First: Yes, I have been sentenced, to spending my life just as it is. Second: Yes, I have been cursed: I have been let off lightly.
An hour later he had filled the rest of that sheet with cross-outs and blotches; nothing more of any real weight would come. Bento felt a touch of panic. Perhaps nothing of import would ever come again. Solomon the Waterboy had been sharp-eyed indeed. Bento had another fit of coughing and rose to close the shutters against the night air. He put his hand to his chest to still the pains, and the pen he had forgotten he held made a jagged line down his white collar. Bento looked down at the slash of the stain and the pain stopped.
He gathered up his pens, his ink pot, his clean paper and carried them all to the room where he conducted his optics experiments. He had never brought the two together before, had only made mathematical notes and drawn charts at the glass bench, never written any of his philosophy here, where sharp glass permeated the air itself. He quickly cleared a space, pushed all the polishing clutter to the right, to the end of the bench. He then set out his ink, his pens, his paper. As a last touch, he put the half-eaten bulb on the small shelf set above his bench at eye-level.
Bento sat on his work stool, put on the ratty skullcap and the threadbare silk gloves. He lifted the veil by its string, dropped it into the scrap barrel. He took up a piece of glass that needed steep beveling, leaned in and began to grind. He watched the glass dust glittering in the lamp light. It was only minutes before he could feel his chest growing heavy as the glass gathered there. Alternating between glass and ink, Bento filled a full four-leaf quire with his small precise script before he began to cough blood. He wiped his mouth and nodded. A serious night's work.