Rivers (Memory and History)

(Susquehanna [at Great Bend, PA] and Hudson River views, sometime last week)

Rivers are part of life on the northeast of the United States. I live between the Hudson and East Rivers. Among others, I cross the Delaware and Susquehanna on a weekly basis on my commute upstate. Rivers are personal and aesthetic. For some of us, they might be mystical, but always also historical. And that’s the problem.

What got me thinking about rivers was the Susquehanna. I grew up in Baltimore, and the Chesapeake Bay and Susquehanna River were part of the cultural landscape. Not that I actually spent much time in either place, but they were part of the local culture. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that the Susquehanna has its source all the way up north in upstate New York. For me, this means that Susquehanna is now part of my adult life on the way to work to Syracuse.

I love living alongside rivers. They suggest something mysterious and non-human happening right-over there. I remember reading one summer in high school the epiphany by the river (Ganges?) in Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. In the Bible, Rivers are Edenic phenomena. In the Zohar, Edenic rivers are pure balsam, phallic phenomena transmitting flow to the body of Shekhinah. At an ocean, we tend to look face to face. Rivers, in contrast, lend themselves to the rush of speeding sidelong glances.

But river memories are complicated. In the northeast, rivers make for pleasant or interesting associations, which are personal and aesthetic, and also historical. There’s George Washington crossing the Delaware, again and again forever. And the explorations of Henry Hudson and the Hudson Valley painters of a later century. I find this all kind of thrilling. I’ll admit that I’m sentimental that way. But I also cross on a weekly rivers and creeks like the Delaware, Passaic, Tioughnioga, Chenango, and Willowemoc, which bring to mind the genocide of the Native American peoples whose memory these names continue to carry. As well, let’s not forget that nasty bit about Hebrew babies thrown into the Nile.

Beauty and genocide. I don’t think it’s possible to square all these different aspects of a single phenomenon under a single concept. I wouldn’t try to do so. Driving through upstate New York in a regular circuit makes that perfectly clear.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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1 Response to Rivers (Memory and History)

  1. Gail says:

    You should read Moby Dick.

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