Aryeh Lev Stollman.
New York: Riverhead Books, 2002
ISBN # 1-57322-975-X.
272 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
September 2005

One of the more intriguing, mysterious and ironic books I’ve read in a long time. The irony isn’t in the book itself, it is in my relation to the title – The Illuminated Soul. My “soul” was deeply touched, even troubled by this book, but it wasn’t really “illuminated.” Puzzled, challenged, stunned, touched, delighted, impressed, even saddened all come to mind, but not quite illuminated. I always felt the illumination was coming, about to be revealed, just around the corner, but it never arrived. I also knew that there were multiple layers, symbols galore, hints, intertwined themes, clues just everywhere, and while I could recognized them as that, I just couldn’t quite bring it all to fruition, to clarity.

I don’t fault the author; in fact I praise her. I couldn’t stop reading, as though I were mesmerized by this simple tale, but just felt so much eluded me. My loss.

Joseph Ivri, noted, but second rank neuro-brain scientist has written his first non-scientific work, The Illuminated Soul. He tells us in the early pages:

Yet, after a long academic life, I am suddenly in demand on account of a small book, which I wrote about the very things I do not know. I completed it in a few brief months after my retirement, when I was recuperating from surgery, too upsetting to describe here, which many times left me lying on my stomach. The Illuminated Soul has been kindly praised by those who do the praising as “an enchanting provocation” and “a ruminative and seductive fairy tale, in which the soul is personified by a beautiful and cultivated woman, a traveler of great charm and erudition.” Others have called it “cultish” and “god-denying -- though I do not believe this is true -- or even “unreliable and intellectually misleading.” The latter negative attitudes have fortunately been the minority opinion and of little consequence. The Illuminated Soul has enjoyed a phenomenal and completely unanticipated international success.

I know it is both hubris and foolishness, but with this very success I feel a certain amount of satisfaction, pride even, a reassurance that during my time on this earth I will have left behind some trace of my existence or better still something of my imagination. Our lives and memories are otherwise such ephemeral things.

And then THIS novel, also called The Illuminated Soul, is told. Presumably the two books are one and the same.

We learn little of the first book mention, except that it become a world-wide hit and it Seems to be THIS (second) story of Eva Higashi who shows up at his home in Windsor, Canada in about 1949. Joseph is just 14 and Eva is looking for a room, having crossed over for a day’s visit to Canada from Detroit, but discovers she is stuck since she has a one-time visa to the U.S. and by leaving it has lost the right to return.

Eva takes a room in the Ivri home and lives with Joseph, his younger brother Asa, who is going blind and their widowed mother, Adele. Eva is a mysterious and delightful roomer. She’s learned, speaks 7 languages, is exotic, elegant, and even writing a book, or actually finishing her father’s book.

The character of the book which Joseph tells us has become so famous is called “Soul.” But clearly it is Eva he has in mind – even the association with Eve and Soul is the beginning of the zillion allusions of this novel.

During the few weeks (it seems, we’re never very clear on the time line) in which Eva stays there, through her stories told to the family we learn a great deal of her history, most importantly that she was raised in pre-war Prague, daughter and only child of a famous Jewish scholar of things mystical. He, through his family, is in possession of a priceless 15th century manuscript of Jewish esoterica. As the Nazis come and take over, Eva escapes Prague, taking the manuscript with her and moves to Japan to marry her lover (thus her last name of Higashi).

Eva is steeped in Jewish mystical literature and the occult, as well as very intelligent and learned. I couldn’t help at time chuckling at her thinking her a new-age woman with a sense of history, intelligence and a sparkling classical education.

Joseph, writing his novel, is the other side of the picture. He turns to neuro-science not mysticism and the occult to understand the human mind, yet is ironically drive to this by his contact with Eva.

What appears to be the central theme running through this marvelous novel is the question: how are we to understand human existence and the human comprehension of it? Eva and Joseph represent polar points of those with rich and attuned consciousness and intelligence. Lots of other things are hinted at in middle grounds.

Eva’s father has conceived a philosophical notion of a “net of reality,” the world as it appears to each of us, rooted in each person’s unique experience of the world and each’s unique ability to think the world. He was working on a book to explain this epistemological notion when the Nazis interrupted that work. The book, Clouds of Glory, was to be finished by Eva, and the precious manuscript she carried away with her was part of the key to the understanding. Joseph says that her father had … “proposed that the divine inspiration with which prophets always speak is in reality an understanding of what he termed das Netz der Wirklichkeit—the net of reality.”

Her father had written:

It is this ‘net of reality” which weaves seemingly disparate things together and makes of them whole cloth. On its own our world seems a chaos of unrelated events to the human mind, but in fact this is not the case. This perception is only due to our limitations of observation and reason. Prophecy and the intellectual tools of the sages who composed the Midrashic commentaries are an attempt to find order and connection so that some sense can be made of our world. But we must be careful, too in such analyses. Such efforts can be a dangerous pursuit. Like those scientists in our time who try fruitlessly to find the spirit which resides in the material brain, one cannot dissect such a delicate and phantom-like creature as prophecy without causing its death.

Along the way of this mysterious story we are challenged to think of this “net of reality,” and the ways of both Jewish mysticism and religious prophecy are suggested as ways of addressing it, as is modern science, especially neuro-science. However, the novel is the story of Eva and her history and father, and the career of Joseph, the narrator. The solutions to the philosophical/religious, even occult and mystical questions are hinted at, not developed.

The novel is a simply wonderful read. I recommend it to all.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett