Jacob the Baker's wise sayings come half-baked from the oven.
Author Noah BenShea
The big pop wisdom book of a generation ago was Jonathan Livingston Seagull
, an illustrated short novel which sold millions of copies with the message that "We can be free! We can learn to fly!" It was a message that expressed some essential hopes of its era.
Perhaps Noah benShea's Jacob the Baker
, with its measured claim to deliver "gentle wisdom for a complicated world" and (oy!) "strength to carry on," do the same. Maybe for many people at century's turn - for some of the same people who in 1972 wanted Seagull's "idea of unlimited freedom" - life has turned into a confusion and a burden.
Well, okay, give them some second-hand wisdom for their situation. But even if, as a poet once said, cliches are always true, it is not a necessary corollary that cliched truths constitute wisdom.Jacob the Baker
, BenShea's first book (like its two sequels, Jacob's Journey
and Jacob's Ladder), is built around a series of smarmy aphorisms of the "Those who do not bend, break" variety. One can't argue with them. It's true: "No matter where we stop on our journey, the person we will encounter is ourselves." It's true: "An eternity is any moment opened with patience." Even (listen up, Snoopy!): "A friend is someone who allows you distance but is never
But, lawdy, these baker's truths - pontifical, self-satisfied, self-consciously wiser-than-thou, full of commandeered rabbinic sayings and watered down Hasidic anecdotes - drop into the mind like balls of raw dough.
The problem may be that BenShea wrote both the questions and the answers. Anybody can be wise in conversation with himself - I do it all the time, and so do you. Real wisdom lies in being deeply responsive to the marvels and miseries of the actual world. BenShea's Jacob, off in a universe of platonic ideas, manages half the time to sound plain insincere.
A cynical reader might, in fact, wonder if the canny Jacob, who began his guru career when one of his wise sayings got discovered baked into a bread, put
the initial message there for purposes of self-promotion. Such a suspicion would not be quelled by watching the PBS program "Gentle Wisdom for a Complicated World," in which BenShea - who says his inner life is identical to Jacob's - smiles a crinkly smile, pulls his bushy beard and comments on life's problems by quoting the wise answers from his own books. Though apparently not funded by BenShea, the program is eerily like one of those half-hour television "infomercials" for food choppers and stain-remover substances, not a serious consideration of an author and his work.
Of course, one wants to like these Jacob books, since they are so wise, so helpful, so giving and poetic. And, to give BenShea his due, he does better when he is shining his small light on biblical themes, such as the Exodus or the Flood, in part because he is finally illuminating a text - something - outside the confines of Jacob's self-referent world. But most of the time, virtually no matter what anyone says to him, Jacob responds with a "wise" aphorism, until the reader would like to throttle him in order to force him to respond like a human being instead of a wisdom vending machine. Jacob's Ladder
, the third in the series, is the best of the three - that is to say, the least smarmy and banal. It even has a little plot, not just unconnected anecdotes aimed at readers who like their wisdom totally divorced from the real world (though there's still plenty of that).
Refreshingly, the third time around Jacob sometimes manages to join the right combination of well-turned phrase to pithy content. That is, some of the aphorisms work. Two of my favorites: "A wise man once said, 'The harder I work, the luckier I get'" and "Sometimes the only thing less flattering than a bad mirror is a good one." He has also become more forthright in trying to sell prayer, Sabbath and religious observance as a cure for worldly ills. You may not want to buy, but at least the merchandise is clearly labeled.
Though harking back to Seagull
, Jacob's real progenitor is not any recent book, but Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet,
a series of syrupy and "poetic" discourses on marriage, children, joy, sorrow, eating, prayer, self-knowledge, etc., with a general message about the healing power of universal love, or something like that. BenShea acknowledges his debt to the structure, if not to the content, of Gibran's work, which has been reprinted in English well over 100 times since it was published in 1923 and continues to find its way into "creative" marriage ceremonies ("Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup....The oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.")
The guru game is not only fun for the ego but lucrative too, especially if you play your subsidiary rights right. Wait and see. Meanwhile, in their hardback editions, the Jacob books are slim and expensive. (Jacob's Journey
consists of 116 pages, with a lot of white space, for $17). As Confucius, who founded the aphorism industry, might have put it: "When a guru totes old cliches like a bludgeon, a smart man hangs on tight to his pocketbook."