Several weeks ago I wrote my first blog post about a coincidence involving Annie Dillard and the fact that her father acted in the zombie cult classic movie Night of the Living Dead. I mentioned that had been the second coincidence I’d experienced involving Annie Dillard, so here now is the tale of the first coincidence.
A few summers ago I read Philip Roth’s novel Sabbath’s Theater, which won the prestigious National Book Award in 1995. I had read and loved several of his novels already, including American Pastoral (which won the Pulitzer in 1997) and The Plot Against America (which is an alternative history that presumes Charles Lindbergh defeated Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election). If you didn’t know already, Roth is widely considered to be one of America’s greatest living novelists. Roth may, however, strike some as a horny teenager (or perhaps a dirty old man) as he often writes vividly and somewhat gratuitously about his character’s erotic desires and activities, though this always seems to fit into the context of the plot and is typically just one proportionate aspect of the character. I started reading Sabbath’s Theater not knowing anything about it, but I quickly concluded that it must have been his most salacious, x-rated novel. I mean, Wow. I nearly stopped reading, but the intriguing characters and strange plot propelled me forward. Others have felt the same way, with an NPR review describing it as a “vile, brilliant masterpiece.”
During a passage where Roth’s libidinous protagonist and anti-hero, Mickey Sabbath, has just finished a poignant visit with his father’s old cousin, Mr. Fish, he off-handedly tells a a Jewish Hasidic tale to a random pedestrian he just met:
Rabbi Mendel once boasted to his teacher, Rabbi Elimelekh, that evenings he saw the angel who rolls away the light before the darkness, and mornings the angel who rolls away the darkness before the light. ‘Yes,’ said Rabbi Elimelekh, ‘in my youth I saw that, too. Later on you don’t see those things any more.’
The old tale, published by Jewish philosopher Martin Buber in Tales of the Hasidim: The Later Masters, comes and goes in Roth’s novel, without comment. It likely just reflects Mickey’s thoughts on old, senile Fish and perhaps on his own advancing age.
So, immediately after Sabbath’s Theater I began reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I think partly as a penitentiary gesture for spending time treading through the often filthy mind of Roth. Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning piece of narrative non-fiction explores several timeless themes in the context of exploring the natural world around her home in western Virginia. Dillard cites and explains quite a bit of natural science, which is why I occasionally read from it at the beginning of my classes. She also provides insights into natural evil and its juxtaposition in our lives to a good world ablaze with beauty. I can not emphasize enough how different Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is from a Philip Roth novel! Dillard is a very spiritual, Christian-influenced writer of mostly non-fiction and poetry often immersed in the wonders of the natural world while Roth is an atheist Jewish novelist writing existentially about his characters, often from the Jewish community of Newark, NJ in the middle part of the 20th century.
And yet. On page 32 of my copy of A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, in a chapter called “Seeing,” Annie Dillard quotes the exact same Hasidic tale that I had just encountered in the last book I read:
Rabbi Mendel once boasted to his teacher Rabbi Elimelekh that evenings he saw the angel who rolls away the light before the darkness, and mornings the angel who rolls away the darkness before the light. ‘Yes,’ said Rabbi Elimelekh, ‘in my youth I saw that too. Later on you don’t see these things any more.’
Now, this was strange. I knew I had just seen that tale before, and it took me a minute to guess where I had seen it. I had already returned Sabbath’s Theater to the library, so I stopped in the next day to verify what I suspected. I flipped through the book, and quickly found the same tale.
Perhaps at first glance you don’t find this too coincidental; it’s an interesting short tale, it offered both writers something they were looking for. However, this is by no means a well-known tale outside the Jewish community. In fact, after some Google searching, I would wager that these are the only published pieces of fiction or narrative non-fiction that have ever quoted this particular tale! Searching “Books” on Google and entering some key phrases from the tale, less than 30 books and articles appear (including Pilgrim and Sabbath’s), and of these much more than half are simply quoting Pilgrim and none are fiction or narrative non-fiction. And, it’s not like Philip Roth and Annie Dillard are best buddies or even speak to each other. I found an interview with Roth online where the interviewer mentions Annie Dillard and Roth responds “I know Annie only slightly.”
So, I happened to read back-to-back perhaps the only two books of creative writing to ever include this Hasidic tale; the chances of that are easily one in a million and probably way higher (1 in a million assumes my choices of what I will ever read are from a set of 1000 books). And, it is very likely I am the only person ever to have read these books, by such incredibly different authors, back-to-back. What does it mean? Nothing? I want to believe that in finding a linking religious tale between these two wildly different books, but books that in some part reflect my wildly different interests and tastes, I have somehow seen “the angel who rolls away the darkness before the light.” And, I don’t want to get so old or cynical that I don’t see that angel anymore.