Zigzag (Abraham Joshua Heschel & Visual Thinking)

Heschel molten metal

The author of Visual Thinking (1969), Rudolf Arnheim must have read The Earth is the Lord’s by Abraham Joshua Heschel. Arnheim writes about, “The gestures of ghetto Jews, whose mind are formed by the traditional sophistry of Talmudic thinking, ‘appear to exhibit an angular change in direction, resulting in a series of zig-zag motions, which when reproduced on paper, present the appearance of intricate embroidery.’”

Actually, I’m not sure whom Arnheim is quoting here. But the line that caught me in Heschel’s text reads like this.  “The mind melted the metal of Talmudic ideas and forged it into fantastic molds, zigzags, in which thought at first became startled, lost its way but at the end succeeded in disentangling itself” (p.54).

By these rights, Heschel was a visual thinker. As understood by Arnheim, this means the act of drawing out and selecting essential features in combination with contexts and changes in context, filling gaps and identifying structures (p.255). The image makes a statement about human existence, about what matters (pp.296, 315, 256).

Throughout The Earth is the Lord’s, Heschel’s set out to see and to look for patterns, form, and the way these adjust and modify. He compares the now vanished life of Eastern European Jewry to a work of non-mimetic art, the patterns of which are non-utilitarian, unworldly, unreal (p.55). They flit across the thin surface of what’s immediately apparent to the empirical mind (p.56).

Standing out as a case in point are Heschel’s remarks comparing the Sephardic and Ashkenazi book as thought-style. There is the one that is brightly colored, elegant, neatly trimmed, perfectly arranged with each detail in place, static, clear, festive, park-like, and ornamental compared to the one that looks dark, dynamic, forest-like, soft, wild, irregular, vague, disorganized and unruly form-pattern. Like molten metal, the Ashkenazi thought-world described by Heschel is a soft amalgam.

[I’m being told on the good authority of Margaret Olin  that Arnheim was quoting David Efron’s dissertation on the gestures of Italians and Jews in New York City. According to Peg, Efron, who worked under Franz Boas, sought to disprove Nazi notions of racial gesturing. I’m supposing it was published as  Gesture and environment : a tentative study of some of the spatio-temporal and “linguistic” aspects of the gestural behavior of eastern Jews and southern Italians in New York city, living under similar as well as different environmental conditions.]


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 Zigzag (Abraham Joshua Heschel & Visual Thinking)

  1. dmf says:

    what was the mind entangled with/in?

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