The Procedure by Harry MulischThe Procedure by Harry Mulisch

The Procedure

byHarry Mulisch

Paperback | September 24, 2002

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Internationally renowned novelist Harry Mulisch's The Procedure is a haunting and fascinating novel about two men who try to create life but fail. In the late sixteenth century, Rabbi Jehudah Löw, in order to guarantee the safety of the Jews in Prague, creates a golem by following a procedure outlined in a third-century cabalist text. Four hundred years later, Victor Werker, a Dutch biologist mourning the loss of his stillborn daughter, causes an international uproar when he creates a complex organic clay crystal that can reproduce and has a metabolism. But his unsettling discovery takes its toll as his inner and outer demons pursue him around the world, from California to Venice, Cairo, and Jerusalem.
Harry Mulisch is author of the international bestsellers The Assault, The Discovery of Heaven, and The Procedure, as well as other novels, short stories, essays, poetry, plays, and philosophical works.
Title:The ProcedureFormat:PaperbackPublished:September 24, 2002Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

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ISBN - 10:0142001279

ISBN - 13:9780142001271

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Read from the Book

The Procedure, Chapter OneDEED ASPEAKINGSo cleverly did his art conceal its artP. Ovidius Naso,Metamorphoses, X. 252FIRST DOCUMENTMANyes, of course I can come straight to the point and start with a sentence like: The telephone rang. Who's ringing whom? Why? It must be something important, otherwise the file wouldn't open with it. Suspense! Action! But I can't do it that way this time. On the contrary. Before anything can come to life here, we must both prepare ourselves through introspection and prayer. Anyone who wants to be swept along immediately, in order to kill time, would do better to close this book at once, put the television on, and sink back on the settee as one does in a hot foam bath. So before writing and reading any further we're going to fast for a day, and then bathe in cool, pure water, after which we will shroud ourselves in robes of the finest white linen.I've switched the telephone and the front doorbell off and turned the clock on my desk away from me; everything in my study is waiting for the events to come. The first luminous words have appeared in the ultramarine of the computer screen, while outside the dazzling, setting autumn sun shines over the square. From the blazing western sky tram rails stream like molten gold from a blast furnace; between the black trees cars appear from the chaos, disappear into it, people walk at the tips of shadows that are yards long. From the position of the sun in my room I can see what time it is: the light is falling diagonally, it's six o'clock, rush hour, for most people the day's work is over.The origin of man was a complicated affair. Much of it is still obscure, not only in biological, but also in theological circles. In the Bible, indeed, this creature is actually created twice, and to a certain extent three times. Genesis 1:27 tells us that on the sixth and last day of creation the following happened: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them." So there were two of them; immediately afterward God says: "Be fruitful, and multiply." So the man was Adam, but the woman wasn't Eve, because the primeval mother of us all saw the light of day only later, when the week of creation was long since over; she wasn't created separately, but came forth from a rib of Adam's. The latter was very pleased about this, because in Genesis 2:23 he declares: "This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh." At last! This also shows that Eve was his second wife. But what about the first? Who was she? Fortunately experts have been able to ascertain this: Lilith.Very self-assured, because created just as independently as Adam, she did not wish to subordinate herself to him. Consequently the rift between them centered on the manner of "reproduction": she was reluctant to be the party underneath. Another element in their conflict over sexual technicalities may have been the fact that Adam was already carrying Eve and so at that stage must have been a rather effeminate type. The row flared up in any case and Lilith finally did something terrible: she cursed. That is, she spoke the ineffable, seventy-two-letter name of JHVH, instantly turned into a demon and flew off. Immediately JHVH sent the angels SNVJ, SNSNVJ, and SMNGLPH in pursuit, who intercepted her over the Red Sea. But they couldn't eliminate her. Ever since, she has preyed on single men and strangled children in childbirth. In brief, in every respect Lilith is the opposite of the later Eve, the primeval mother, who through her creation finally made a real man of Adam.But by that time-after the week of creation, that is-this Adam had been created for the second time. Anyone who still owns a Bible (otherwise he should just look in a bedside table at the nearest hotel), can read in Genesis 2:7: "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." The difference between this and the first time is that we are now given some concrete details, but too little to be able to make use of it for ourselves. Fortunately there are other sources besides the Bible. Over the centuries, without distinction between the first and second creation of Adam, a number of scholars have reconstructed the course of events on the sixth and last day of creation from hour to hour, but the timetables they have presented differ. According to one of them Adam appeared in JHVH's thoughts in the first hour. In the second hour JHVH discussed his brainwave with the cabinet of archangels. Some of them thought it a good idea, others were opposed; but while the angels were still debating and squabbling, in the third hour JHVH began collecting red, black, white, and brown earth. This was, of course, not just any old dust, but the finest dust from all corners of the earth, and particularly from the spot where subsequently the Temple of Solomon was to arise. In the fourth hour, using the purest water, he kneaded it into clay. In the fifth hour he formed Adam's body. In the sixth hour he made a golem of him, an "earth germ": an entity that was no longer inorganic, but was not yet a human being either. In the seventh hour, on the same Temple Mount where so many memorable events were later to take place, he breathed a soul into the embryonic creature, after which in the eighth hour he finally set Adam ("Earth") in Paradise, where the latter showed himself capable of speech by giving names to the animals: "chimpanzee," "orangutan..."In heaven the archangels were meanwhile still quarreling about the desirability of man, but JHVH said, "Why are you still talking? He has already been created." He seems to have had other problems with his ministers for that matter, because according to some sources Adam was initially as large as the whole universe, which they saw as a threat. Thereupon God reduced him to more moderate, although still gigantic proportions. Only after the fall did he and his Eve acquire the dimensions still customary today.In this way we learn more and more. I myself am-professionally-curious to know further details about that mysterious sixth hour. What did JHVH actually get up to in it? Intermediate stages, origins, decay, twilights, metamorphoses, are always more interesting than what's already there, is not yet there, or is no longer there. The transition in the seventh hour from organic matter to man through the divine breath of life is less essential than the transition from dead to living matter in the sixth hour. The difference between an amoeba and a human being is less than that between a crystal and an amoeba, because in the latter case the difference is almost 100 percent. (Almost? Not 100 percent? What then? 99.999...percent? Patience!) So that during that transition, in the sixth hour, something really fundamental happened. What exactly?I have great news. In the virtually endless twists and turns of Scripture there is a piece of writing that tells us something about this: Sefer Yetsirah, The Book of Creation. It was written in Hebrew, presumably in about the third century in Palestine, by an anonymous Jewish neo-Pythagorean, and is the complete antithesis of what is regarded at the end of the twentieth century as a readable text. I doubt whether at this moment more than a hundred people in the entire world are poring over that mysterious book; it's rather like a secret, metaphysical royal chamber in the pyramid of the written word. For that matter, "book" is too grand a word; it consists of six short chapters, divided into eighty-one sections, all in all less than two thousand words, that is, scarcely five A4 sheets. I must confess that this fills me with immeasurable jealousy: five A4 sheets! Since quantity is also quality, every writer wants to write a book of a thousand pages-but a treatise of five pages, which has been studied for century after century, has been followed by innumerable commentaries, and has still not yielded up its secret, that goes a step further.The text concludes with the statement that Abraham also studied the book and understood it, thereby becoming in creative terms virtually the equal of God; the rest of humankind could not make even a mosquito among them. In the Middle Ages people who should know added that initially he devoted himself to study in solitude, but then suddenly he heard the voice of JHVH-the real author-and was told that no one could understand Sefer Yetsirah by himself, there must be two of you. For this purpose Abraham chose his teacher Shem, the son of Noah. This rule, that there should be two, still applies to the present day, so that suits us well because there are two of us too, you and I.Listen. Of course you know that the world and Adam were created by the word-but how that worked technically can only be read in the mysterious manual that JHVH himself used and therefore dates from before creation. In it linguistic creation is not taken figuratively, as usually happens, but-with the inexorable consistency of Judaic mysticism-literally.Because words consist of letters, as molecules consist of atoms, we must focus attention on the elementary components' building blocks: the twenty-one letters of the Hebrew alphabet, called "othioth." Because don't forget that the world was created in Hebrew; it wouldn't have been possible in any other language, least of all Dutch, whose spelling will not be settled until heaven and earth pass away. To make a distinction I call that exalted othioth the "alephbeth": Aleph [ý], Beth [·], Gimel [’], Daleth [“], He [”], Waw [Â], Zayin [Ê], Heth [Á], Teth [Ë], Yod [È], Kaph [Î], Lamed [Ï], Mem [Ì], Nun [•], Samekh [Ò], 'Ayin [Ú], Pe [Ù], Sadhe [–], Qoph [—], Resh [¯], Shin [˜], Taw [™]. It consists exclusively of consonants. The aleph and the 'ayin are also consonants. For example the aleph is not the sound "a" but a hard click in the throat, as one makes when one suddenly cuts or burns oneself, the so-called glottal stop, for which, according to philologists, one should imagine having a fish hook thrown into one's throat which is immediately jerked back. Those consonants form the visible body of the words-the vowels are their soul and hence invisible. Or rather: TH VWLS R THR SL ND HNC NVSBL.The first chapter concerns the "thirty-two hidden paths of wisdom": the mysterious, "infinite numbers without anything" from 1 to 10 plus the 22 letters. JHVH himself is 1, the 22 letters he derived "with mud and clay," from 2 and 3; only 4 gives birth to the heavens and the angels. Then he took the three most important letters (A, M, SH: the "three mothers"), which under the dominance of the numbers 5 to 10 as height, depth, east, west, north, and south he sealed with permutations of his ineffable name JHV, JVH, HJV, HVJ, VJH, and VHJ. There is no more talk of numbers, only of letters.To give you an impression, I will now show you in confidence the second chapter of JHVH's instruction manual:1. Twenty-two letters: three mothers, seven double, and twelve simple. Three mothers A, M, SH, their foundation: the scale of merit and the scale of guilt, and the tongue is a moving hand between those two. Three mothers A, M, SH: M is mute, SH sibilant, and A brings the two into equilibrium.2. Twenty-two letters, he designed them, carved them out, weighed them, combined and transposed them, each with all; with them shaped the whole of creation and everything that remained to be created.3. Twenty-two letters: three mothers, seven double, and twelve simple; they have been designed in the voice, shaped in the air, and put in five places into the mouth. The letters A, H, CH, AJ in the throat, G, J, K, Q, on the palate, D, L, N, T on the tongue, Z, S, TS, R, SH, on the teeth, B, V, M, PHe on the lips.4. Twenty-two letters, they are put into a circle like a wall with two hundred and thirty-one gates. The circle can turn forward or backward, and its sign is this: nothing surpasses AJ N G (= "contentment"), in goodness and nothing surpasses N G AJ (= "disaster") in evil.5. How did he combine, weigh, and transpose them? A with all others and all others with A, B with all others and all others with B, G with all others and all others with G, and they all return in a circular form to the exit through two hundred and thirty-one gates, and so it is that the whole of creation and all language arises from one name.6. He created something from nothing and made the non-being into a being; and he fashioned great columns from intangible air. This is the sign: he beheld, spoke, and produced the whole of creation and all things from one name, the sign of which is twenty-two things in one body.That one name, from which everything originates, is therefore the ineffable name of God: the tetragrammaton JHVH. In the four remaining chapters everything is given birth to in space and time through obscure combinations and permutations by the "three mothers," the "seven double," and "twelve simple," with countless correspondences among nature, the human body, and the year.The Book of Creation is the loftiest ode to writing ever written.—Reprinted from The Procedure by Harry Mulisch by permission of Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002, Harry Mulisch  All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

Bookclub Guide

INTRODUCTIONIf we can assume that, like most authors, Harry Mulisch wants his work to be read, what are we to make of the first page ofThe Procedure, where the novel's narrator tells us that "anyone who wants to be swept along immediately, in order to kill time, would do better to close this book at once, put the television on, and sink back on the settee as one does in a hot foam bath" (p. 3)? In The Procedure, as in his other novels (which include The Assault, Last Call, and The Discovery of Heaven), Mulisch is not afraid to deal with such complex and weighty themes as creation, meaning, life, death, and love, and in doing so, he draws upon Judeo-Christian creation stories, popular mythologies, and the modern science of genetics. The Procedure is a sustained meditation on how the world and its inhabitants have come into being; at the same time, it reflects on its own creation and the creative processes of its author. The narrator's admonition indicates that these ideas cannot be considered in haste.The main character of The Procedure is Victor Werker, a geneticist who has discovered a process for creating life. Mulisch continually defies and subverts conventional narrative structures, however, and Victor appears only after an explanation of how the world was originally created in Hebrew, with words and letters acting as molecules and atoms. In fact, the unusual structure of the novel is as much a part of the book's theme as are the plot and characters. Are we to assume, then, that complex stories always require a complex telling? Instead of chapters, the novel is divided into three sections or "deeds" (A, B, and C) that are subdivided into a total of twelve "documents," so that the entire text has the feel of a legal record or a scientific report. Victor observes that "everything is always also something else" (p. 125). By writing a novel that masquerades as a legal or scientific text, Mulisch asks us to consider what distinguishes these different kinds of writing and what they have in common.The first deed, "Speaking," plunges into a discussion of Sefer Yetsirah, The Book of Creation, in order to make a connection between the power of language and the will to create. As Victor later notes, "Life begins with speaking" (p. 85). Like a scientist studying the building blocks of life, Mulisch analyzes the materials from which he will build his novel: the letters of the alphabet. This first section establishes links between theology, science, art, and reproduction by examining the generative power of language in the creation stories of Adam and Eve, Lilith (Adam's first wife), and the Golem of Prague. Like a golem, a creature made from clay and brought to life by invoking a specific sequence of letters, Victor's eobiont—an artificial life form—is dependent upon the set of letters used to label the crucial DNA sequence. According to legend, a golem is only a poor imitation of human form, and we might suspect that the eobiont will eventually exhibit similar flaws. If we are meant to understand that there is a common denominator at work in all acts of creation—sexual, scientific, and even literary—it may be that they share something with the original divine act of creation, or perhaps that they are fraught with difficulty and imperfection.The second deed, "The Spokesman," begins to shed light on the scientific pursuits that have defined Victor's life. Victor recounts his development of the eobiont in a series of letters written to his stillborn daughter, Aurora. Victor sends these letters to Aurora's mother, Clara, who left him after her pregnancy. Here Mulisch emphasizes the risks and complications involved in every act of creation. Victor is painfully aware of the irony that he has succeeded in creating life artificially but has failed to do so naturally. These two efforts at creation raise numerous questions, among them whether there is a basic desire to create that transcends specific objectives, and whether or not a distinction between artificial and natural means of creation really exists. Victor also becomes aware of the disturbing parallels between his eobiont and the monster created by Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley's novel. The allusion suggests the possibility that, like Frankenstein, Victor may have failed to consider fully the consequences of creating life in a laboratory and made too many sacrifices in the process.Shifting back to a third-person narrator, the novel's final section, Deed C, "The Conversation," draws together the various fragments of Victor's life. In this section, Mulisch compares Victor to Pygmalion (the mythical artist who fell in love with his own creation). Implicit in the comparison is the question of what separates science from art. The central event is Victor's reunion with his "milk brothers," the triplets his mother nursed, whom he has not seen since he was a child. Victor's motive for this reunion remains uncertain. He may want to reestablish a connection with the natural process of reproduction, or perhaps he is searching for a family to fill the void left by his stillborn daughter and his estranged wife.In The Procedure, Mulisch explores the structure of life—in the biological sense—and the structure of narrative, and at times the two seem nearly indistinguishable. The numerous parallels between theology and science, art and science, art and religion, and language and technology are ultimately as important as the development and resolution of the novel's complex plot. From the opening warning to readers expecting a breezy tale, Mulisch challenges assumptions about stories of creation.ABOUT HARRY MULISCHHarry Mulisch was born in Holland on July 29, 1927, to an Austro-Hungarian father and a Jewish mother from Antwerp. A prolific writer of novels, short stories, essays, poetry, plays, and philosophical works, he has won numerous awards, including, in 1977, both the P. C. Hooft Prize and the Constantijn Huygens Prize. Relatively few of his works have been translated from Dutch into English. The best known of these are his novels The Assault (1982), Last Call (1985), and The Discovery of Heaven (1992). The Assault, an international bestseller, was adapted for the screen and won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1986. Most readers and critics consider The Discovery of Heaven to be Mulisch's magnum opus. Typical of Mulisch's style, The Discovery of Heaven is a challenging work that blends philosophical, psychological, scientific, and theological inquiries to tell a complex tale about a hedonistic astronomer who befriends a cerebral philologist. Among his most significant untranslated works are Het seksuele bolwerk (1973), a biography of Wilhelm Reich, and De zaak 40/61 (1962), a report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann.DISCUSSION QUESTIONSTo what does the title The Procedure refer? Why is the novel organized as a series of deeds and documents instead of chapters? What are the meanings of the titles of the three deeds: "Speaking," "The Spokesman," and "The Conversation"? Do the titles represent a progression? What is the significance of the name Victor Werker? Why does Victor write letters to his dead daughter, Aurora? What is the significance of his daughter's name? Why does he send these letters to Aurora's mother, Clara? Why does Victor tell us almost nothing about the actual procedures involved in the discovery and development of the eobiont? What are the important similarities and differences between Victor's creation of the eobiont, the story of the golem, and the story of Victor's conception? Why does the novel draw a parallel between the Hebrew letters used to create the world (as discussed in the first document) and the letters used by scientists to map DNA and RNA (as discussed in the sixth document)? Why is Victor interested in reuniting with his "milk brothers"? Why does Victor choose to investigate the assassination conspiracy that he overhears on the telephone? Why does Victor skip the meeting with the American interested in financing the eobiont project? Why does the novel end with Victor's assassination?FOR FURTHER REFLECTIONHow are theologians, artists, and scientists similar and different in terms of their approaches to creation? Can human creativity ever be fully explained, or will it always possess a mystical element? Should scientists attempt to produce artificial life?RELATED TITLESMichael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000)After escaping Nazi-occupied Prague, Joe Kavalier makes his way to Brooklyn and his cousin Sam Clay. Their relationship and the comics they create together are the heart of this epic novel about the possibilities and loneliness of American life.Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum (1988; English translation 1989)Synthesizing science, technology, mythology, and the occult, this challenging novel features a mystical source of energy greater than atomic power.Cees Noteboom, The Following Story (1991; English translation 1994)Winner of the 1993 European Literary Prize, this novella incorporates philosophy, mythology, science, and humor to tell the story of a failed love affair between a professor of classical languages and a biology teacher, both of whom are fascinated with the metamorphoses that characterize life and death.Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818)Victor Frankenstein unlocks the secrets of life, only to create a monster that threatens to destroy everything he loves.

Editorial Reviews

"Sharply imagined, vivid, and often funny." —The Washington Post"Immensely challenging, eminently readable and astonishingly good. Mulisch is a first-rate writer who grabs your attention … a dazzlingly original highbrow read" —Mail on Sunday"A deftly created tale [that] tackles nothing less than the mystery of life itself. What gives this novel its fascinating brilliance is Mulisch’s skill as a storyteller" —The Times (London)"Entertaining, moving and invigorating" —Sunday Times (London)"Wonderful observations, much humour, highly ambitious … the wild daring of a very exciting mind" —Independent