Brainwave 2011: Ride the Wave

Brainwave 2011 | Illustration by Jeremy Finch

Shhh!  Listen.  Do you hear that?  That’s right ladies and gentlemen, the most enlightening conversation series in New York City is back.  Brainwave 2011!  At The Rubin Museum of Art.  The theme of this season is . . . DREAMS!

The first event that I had the pleasure of attending was “Who Dreamed the First Dream” (March 6), featuring the Israeli writer Meir Shalev and the American Museum of Natural History anthropologist Serinity Young.  Mr. Shalev—who writes a weekly column for the newspaper Yediot Ahronot—is the author of several fiction (A Pigeon and A Boy, 2006), non-fiction (In the Beginnings: Firsts in the Bible, 2011), and children’s books (My Father Always Embarrasses Me, 1988).  Dr. Young received a PhD in Comparative Religion and has edited and herself authored books, most notably Dreaming in the Lotus (1999), an analysis of the role of dreams in Buddhism, and the forthcoming Courtesans and Tantric Consorts: Sexualities in Buddhist Narrative, Ritual, and Iconography, which sounds pretty hot.

Dr. Young began by recounting the Buddhist myth of the dream of Queen Maya.  Queen Maya, the mother of the Buddha, dreamed that her womb was touched from the right side by a white elephant.  Wise men then concluded that Queen Maya would give birth to the Buddha.  Mr. Shalev remarked that this is very sexual.  The crowd laughed; he laughed too, but was at the same time quite serious.  “We cannot ignore the trunkiness of the trunk,” he reminded.  Mr. Shalev is also a wise man, and a gifted storyteller.  During his time onstage Mr. Shalev recounted his own childhood dreams and offered anecdotes about his father, which thoroughly delighted the audience.  In anticipation of Mr. Shalev’s talk, I was reading one of his books—The Blue Mountain (2002)—and it was delightful too, but unfortunately I got into a disagreement with it.  One of those “it’s not you it’s me” situations.  We’ll see what happens.  (If anyone is reading/has read the book and would like to council me through my relationship, feel free to get in touch.)

During the question-and-answer portion of the event, someone asked Mr. Shalev “Who is your favorite Bible character?”  Mr. Shalev said Jacob, because of the extreme poles—romantic and practical—that exist within his character.  For example, when Jacob first meets his wife-to-(eventually)-be Rachel, he notices that she is beautiful, and also that her family has a nice flock of sheep.  A good match, then, in two regards.  Mr. Shalev then remembered Paltiel, an even-less-than-minor character who appears for a few lines in the book of 2 Samuel.  We’re talking one-line-minor.  After overcoming the House of Saul, King David insists upon having Saul’s daughter Michal for a wife.  And so she was taken from her husband—Paltiel—who “went with her, weeping as he went, and followed her to Bahurim.  Then said Abner unto him, ‘Go, return’ and he returned'” (2Samuel3:16).  Devotion, loss.  There is a whole novel right there, as Mr. Shalev noted.  The Bible is filled with such unnoticed but necessary characters, which give the work the thorough richness that makes great literature great, as in for example The Iliad, War and Peace, The Inferno, Don Quixote, or Remembrance of Things Past.  Maybe the most telling thing about a person is how he treats his minor characters.  In art and in life.

March 6, 2011.  Brainwave.  I heard Mr. Meir Shalev.  To this point, he appears in maybe one line in the book of my life, if that were to exist.  He is a minor character.  And I am so grateful that I encountered him.  And I am grateful for Brainwave.  For its enrichment.

About the author

Ben Ehrlich

Ben Ehrlich's new book "The Dreams of Santiago Ramón y Cajal" will be published by Oxford University Press in 2016. Ben is a 2015 Salzburg Global Seminar fellow in Neuroscience and Art.

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