Not only that, but the parallels between godly, kabbalistic and artistic creation are clear. Is every literary character not a golem? Not quite as convincing as a real flesh and blood creation but, in the hands of a true (or ‘virtuous’) artist – close. The 19thcentury realist novel had created characters as true to life as possible. With God dead, it was time for the writer to create characters that were no longer in imitation of Christ, the son of God and of Man. Fully rounded, believable actors on the panoramic stage of history, the Anna Kareninas and Raskolnikovs, fell out of fashion and characters emerged that, like golems, were obviously the creation of sinful, profane men, imperfect Gods. In the inter-war period of avant gardism in the arts, the figure of the mechanical man was especially popular as an illustration of the artificiality of the literary work itself. The realist novel had created characters as true to life as possible; newer books flaunted their artistic nature. Admittedly, it could be argued that peopling novels with cardboard cut-outs was a sign of humility, a reaction to a perceived sin of pride of the realist novel.
Whatever the case may be, it was around this time that Czech writer Karel Čapek gave the world the word ‘robot’ and that Flann O'Brien suggested that novels be inhabited by off-the-peg characters taken from the workshops of previous writers. In Poland Bruno Schulz wrote a “Treatise on Tailors' Dummies” that is an argument in favour of creating artificial men, and populated his short story Spring with them. Italian futurists were captivated by the potential of artificial men. As early as 1910, Marinetti wrote Mafarka, which features an artificial man called Gazurmah.
The golem is often cited in science fiction, a branch of literature that deals more than most with the question of whether we are alone in the universe. For as well as offering a way for artists to explore the nature of creation and creativity, the golem also offers a vehicle for considerations of loneliness and self-awareness. The Golem's growing realisation of his sorry state gives scope for poignancy. As he gradually realises he is utterly alone in the world, he mirrors man's own fears and it is tempting to see the golem's escape into destructiveness as a literary/ folk wisdom version of what man has done. In his/its limited understanding but great physical strength, the golem provides a metaphor for humankind. The strides man has made in science and technology have not been matched in the sphere of civilisation. Wars have become bloodier as man has grown more technological muscle without a correspondingly rapid increase in intelligence.
In the short stories that make up I, Robot, Asimov shows us robots growing in sophistication and approaching ever nearer to humans in their consciousness. But the robot never attains humanity, just as man never attains godhead. The golem can always be destroyed by its maker, since it has no soul. But the moral dilemma is that the golem comes so close to humanity that it is all its maker can do to unmake him. This is brought out especially in Singer's 1969 re-telling of the story.
In Meyrink's novel, the golem returns to the ghetto every thirty-three years. Perhaps the time is now again ripe for “…some kind of myst
erious explosion, something potent in its workings – something that forces the dreams of the subconscious up into the light of day – some lightning-stroke giving rise to an object that, could we but read its riddle, symbolises, both in ways and appearance, the whole soul of the masses, had we but got one glimmer of the cryptic language of form?”.
A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, traditions, legends, humour, wisdom and folk songs of the Jewish people, ed. Nathan Ausubel, London, 1972
The New Standard Jewish Encyclopaedia, ed. Geoffrey Wigoder, 1992
Stefan Chwin, “Grzeszne manipulacje,” in Czytanie Schulza, ed. Jerzy Jarzębski, Cracow, 1992
Dan Cohn-Sherlock and Lavinia Cohn-Sherlock, Jewish and Christian Mysticism: An Introduction, New York, 1994.
Idel Moshe, Kabbalah. New Perspectives, New Haven and London, 1988
Gershom G. Scholem, On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism, transl. Ralph Manheim, London, 1965
Byron L. Sherwin, The Golem Legend: Origins and Implications, London, 1985
Isaac Bashevis Singer, Foreword to Golem! Danger, Deliverance and Art, Emily Bilski, ed., New York, 1988