Classic Remarks is meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation. Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating! This week’s prompt is:
Recommend a diverse classic.
One of my favorite books is Chaim Potok’s modern classic My Name Is Asher Lev, which tells the story of a boy whose passion for art threatens his relationship with his father and his community. Asher cannot help but paint, but his father, an Orthodox Jew, is convinced that Asher’s talent is demonic. Asher wants to believe that he can reconcile his art with his faith and that what he does is worth something, even if he is not serving his people the way generations of his family have served. But learning to be an artist means painting nudes and, even worse, considering the power of a crucifixion painting. Asher feels compelled to follow his vision wherever it leads him, making choice after choice that threatens to destroy his family even as each allows him to feel that he is remaining true to himself. Asher and his father both see the world in different ways and, though they repeatedly try to bridge the distance between them, they ultimately are too similar ever to understand each other.
The book ends with no easy answers or moralistic messages. Rather, it suggests that even though art may be necessary, it may also be selfish and destructive. Its uneasy confrontation with the nature of art and the cost of success become even more provocative when considered in light of what Potok might have been trying to work within himself as he wrote. Where do art and faith mix and where do they diverge? How much meaning can we find in art and in which kinds of art? Does a compulsion to do something justify doing it? And what happens when the path you see laid out before you is a path no one else thinks you should take?