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Literature and Political Theology

Intimate Association Beyond Secular Time

“I am the sum total of a thousand years of misery and striving! You may have given us this broken immortality, but I will be the first to die without fear!”

Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni (2013), followed by The Hidden Palace (2021), tells the love story of two magical creatures in the city of New York around the turn of the twentieth century. These novels add fantastic elements to romance as the protagonists are not ordinary human individuals but a golem, made of clay as in Jewish folklore, and a jinni, a fiery spirit from Arabic mythology. Not a high fantasy set in some otherworld, the story of Chava the golem and Ahmad the jinni unfolds in a specific time—the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—and place —America as connected to other parts of the world by the movement of immigrants. What is the significance of combing romance with fantasy? Or, why can’t Wecker simply write, using the conventions of literary realism, an interracial romance featuring the Jewish and Arabic immigrant communities? Why does this fantastic story of nonhuman lovers bother to anchor itself in the real-life world? And how should readers approach these novels as historical fiction? What kind of historical juncture do these texts explore?

In his magnum opus A Secular Age, Charles Taylor describes secularization as the process in which the porous selves of premodern societies, selves vulnerable to the spiritual forces coursing across various boundaries in an enchanted cosmos, transformed into the buffered selves disembedded from that cosmos, which was replaced by a disenchanted universe governed by mechanical laws (page if you have one). Chava and Ahmad are porous selves, or magical subjects. Chava is a golem made at the request of an immigrant moving from Germany to America and, after her master dies at sea, compelled to survive by herself in the New York City. She is not exactly alive as she needs no food or sleep. With a self-regenerating body, she does not die, unless ritually deconstructed. Even more interestingly, created to serve the needs of others, she is able to read the minds of people around her. She is a porous self radically open to the others and the world. Ahmad is another supernatural being, a shape-shifting and dream-invading spirit roaming the Syrian desert. He is imprisoned in a flask for a thousand years before being released from it in the alien city of New York. He will live on for another long period of time, hundreds or thousands of years. Although not immortals in a strict sense, the Golem and the Jinni are creatures embodying magical time, whose experiences of time deviate from the “secular time” of modernity. This magical time is also distinct from the monotheistic notion of eternity which forms a binary with secular time.

Taylor acknowledges that the term secular “has something to do with the way human society inhabits time (192).” In “Time, World, and Secularism,” an article published in The Post-secular in Question: Religion in Contemporary Society, Craig Calhoun traces the etymology of the secular back to saeculum, a unit of time used by Etruscans and the Romans after them. Saeculum meant 30 or 100 years, a generation or the longest normal life span. Early Christian thinkers added the contrast between earthly existence and eternal life to this ancient usage. They believed that Christ would return after a millennium, or ten saecula, and called this period of waiting secular time. They also urged those caught up in worldly, sensual affairs to direct their attention to the spiritual goods and ultimate ends, that is, to escape the temptation and corruption of the secular and aspire toward the eternal. The secular world was either to be carefully guided by parish ministry or kept at a distance by those embracing monastic discipline (Calhoun 2012, 335-64). In this light, the tension between sexual desire and spiritual devotion that marked courtly love, the origin of romantic love, is one between the secular and the eternal.

In medieval scholasticism, saeculum acquired a new meaning. Originally used to denote long stretches of tempora of the created world in contradistinction to the aeternitas of God, saeculum became a new concept referencing a kind of time that is abstract, isochronic, infinite and independent of motion. Stefan Fisher-Høyrem’s book Rethinking Secular Time in Victorian England identifies this resignified secular time as the origin of the modern sense of time as mediated by technological networks such as railways, mass media, and financial institutions. Moreover, this secular time “is not ‘ordinary’ time; it is abstract and independent of the ever-changing flux characterizing worldly tempora.” It is equally “distinct from divine eternity; there is nothing ‘otherworldly’ or ‘divine’ about it (Fisher-Høyrem 2022, 56).” While a mere concept in medieval scholasticism, secular time has become the dominant temporality of the modern world, breaking the ordinary time or the natural cycles of worldly existence and exiling higher times including but not limited to the monotheist notion of eternity. Along this line, Taylor’s argument that modern social imaginaries recognize one singular kind of time, the ordinary time existing apart from the higher times may be revised. It is because secular time is not ordinary time. Secular time floats between the ordinary time of everyday life and the realm of the beyond and touches neither side.

Secular time is the homogeneous empty time Walter Benjamin associated with the concept of historical progress in Illuminations. According to Benedit Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, it is the time for the building of nation-states whose spatially dispersed members share simultaneous experience through news media. Jonathan Crary identifies it in 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep as the time for the rise of a global economic system that never sleeps, “the 24/7 operations of information processing networks, and…the unending transmission of light through fiber-optic circuitry (24).” It is the time of America where immigrants have formed a new nation and built a capitalist market. It is also the time of love stories, which tracks the progress of the individual in the present, away from the confines of the past, and toward self-realization in the future. Romantic love in secular time no longer needs to struggle against the worldly as there is no otherworld to strive for. Nor does it perfectly align with everyday life because it has become an abstraction in novels, films, and a range of commodities.  

There have always been other temporalities and other possibilities of love. Talal Asad, another scholar working on the secular, in his Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity reminds us that the imposed homogeneity of secular time, together with the clear boundaries of space, does violence to the minorities whose time is “of embodied practices rooted in multiple traditions, of the differences between horizons of expectation and spaces of experience” (179). Judith Butler also finds it necessary to “undercut the temporal framework that uncritically supports state power, its legitimating effect, and its coercive instrumentalities” (37) in “Sexual Politics, Torture, and Secular Time” collected in the anthology Intimate Citizenships: Gender, Sexuality, Politics. While both Asad and Butler are concerned with the secular time of the state, capital is another sovereignty that has been imposing the same temporal framework on every busy-body. The logic of the state, according to Eric Santner’s book The Weight of All Flesh: On the Subject-Matter of Political Economy,  is also “that of neoliberal political economy with its demand for constant production, consumption, communication, interconnectedness, inter-indebtedness, and profit-oriented self-management (34).” Challenging this singular regime of temporality, scholars of South Asian and East Asian studies have researched how linear time and progressive history were imposed onto non-Western cultures during colonial/imperial encounters and published books such as The Challenge of Linear Time: Nationhood and the Politics of History in East Asia and Retelling Time: Alternative Temporalities from Premodern South Asia. They have also in these books retrieved pre-modern varieties of temporalities which carry with them alternative ways of making the self and living with others.

I read the Golem and the Jinni as temporal rebels against the secular. They are creatures of magical time which fuses the ordinary time and higher times other than eternity. On the one hand, they are artisans making bread and working with metals, things essential for an ordinary life. They devote their sleepless nights not to production or consumption but philosophical rumination. On the other hand, they outlive the human life span, one of the early meanings of saeculum. Their very existence is not individualistic but tied to the many lives of many generations. It is no exaggeration to say that they help to revive magical time at the very heart of modern America, the New York City, and during the height of industrialization, an alternative temporal framework for the pursuit of intimate associations, that is, interpersonal, interracial, and cross-cultural connections. However, magical time is internally ambiguous, because it is neither secular nor uncontroversial within monotheist traditions. Byron L Sherwin in “Golems in the Biotech Century” reminds us that the created golem may run amok and cause danger and destruction; while Christopher M. Moreman’s article “Rehabilitating the Spirituality of Pre‐Islamic Arabia: On the Importance of the Kahin, the Jinn, and the Tribal Ancestral Cult” points out jinn are creatures from pre-Islamic Arabic traditions who, although not necessarily evil, are not trustworthy. In Wecker’s novels, anxiety over the magical is momentarily eased when the antagonist is introduced.

The Golem and the Jinni are bound to the same evil wizard who has already acquired the method of achieving immortality. The Jinni is captured by Wahab ibn Malik; the Golem is created by Yehudah Schaalman a thousand years later. It turns out Schaalman is one of the many reincarnations of ibn Malik, who gets reborn across time and can regain his memories once he reconnects with the Jinni. Appearing under the alias Joseph Schall in New York, this magician tries to do the same with the Golem. He tries to become her master and make her into a new anchorage for his future reincarnations but ends up being sucked into the very flask meant to imprison the Jinni again. Perhaps, instead of focusing on the protagonists, we might better understand the temporal alternatives to secular modernity by discussing the antagonist, who obtains immortality through endless reincarnations. Like the Golem and the Jinni, the magician also brings back alternative temporalities to secular modernity. However, why must the magician be evil?

Wecker does not question the stereotype of stigmatized magician/magic when she portrays Schaalman as someone arrogant, lustful, and bad-tempered, while his quest for immortality diabolical. She introduces a split between the evil Schaalman and his magical creatures, the latter fighting against him for the freedom to explore themselves and the world. This fight between good and evil, the central conflict of the first novel, breaks out within the realm of the magical, leaving secular time unchallenged. In other words, both sides embody alternative temporalities in conflict with secular modernity, but the monotheistic taboo against magic distracts attention away from the magical-secular confrontation. The idea of the transmigration of the soul was present in Greek philosophy, but suppressed in monotheistic traditions upholding the divide of time and eternity. Outside the limits of monotheistic traditions, more possibilities of temporalities and cosmologies exist. Incarnations may be heroic while the quest for immortality a legitimate and honorable pursuit. For instance, ancient Hindu epics such as The Mahabharata and The Ramayana tell stories about deities taking on human incarnations to save the world. Buddhist scriptures also narrate the biography of the historical Buddha across multiple life spans. It has been noticed by Fontaine Lien in “Defying Death: Stigmas and Rewards of Immortality in Taoist and Gothic Literary Traditions” that while immortality seekers are despicable villains in Western literary traditions such as gothic fiction, Daoist tales have been teaching people how to practice alchemy and become immortals, superhuman beings with paranormal powers and paradigmatic morality.

As Wecker’s novels are inspired by Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (2000), I can’t help wondering whether Chava and Ahmad might meet magical creatures living amidst Asian immigrants such as a human incarnation of some Hindu deity or a Daoist alchemist practicing self-divinization. What kind of stories will unfold? What kind of questions will be raised? To give a few examples: Will there be some nocturnal conferences on cosmological assumptions in monotheistic and Asian religious traditions and the epistemological, ethical, and political implications of these foundational notions? Will our protagonists struggle against new villains representing the hegemony of the state and/or capital in America and at other places? Given their longevity, how will these magical creatures experience and respond to the crises we are living through: economic inequality, rise of nationalism and xenophobia, financial breakdowns, regional wars, and climate change that seems to lead us toward the end of the world as we know it. What will be their respective survival strategies that take their alternative experiences of time as a springboard?

The American Fantasy: Gender, Work, and Freedom in The Golem and the Jinni

“I was only imagining it. Being freed.”

Fantasy and the Prophetic: A Response to The Golem and Jinni

“Dreams come true, in fantasy novels and in prophecy”

The Political Romance of Clay and Air

“Your clay is the clay of some Litvak shtetl, your air is the air of the steppes.”

Intimate Association Beyond Secular Time

“I am the sum total of a thousand years of misery and striving! You may have given us this broken immortality, but I will be the first to die without fear!”

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