An Uncompromising Search for Truth

Examination of a brief passage in Agnon's final novel reveals a reference to the heroism of a real-life doctor whom the author knew, and a sense of the professional dedication that moved and motivated the great novelist.

In the history of medical research in Israel, a place of honor is reserved for Prof. Saul Adler, founder of the Microbiology Institute and the department of parasitology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was born in Russia in 1895 and immigrated with his family as a child to England, where he studied medicine. Adler came to Palestine in 1924, eventually becoming a professor at Hebrew University. His area of expertise was the study of parasites in both animals and humans, the diseases caused by them, and their treatment and cure. Adler won many awards in recognition of his groundbreaking studies, among them the Israel Prize. He died in Jerusalem in 1966.

Among all of Adler's activities and studies, I would like to focus on a single event: Between 1921 and 1924, he concentrated on studying tropical diseases in Sierra Leone. During the course of his study of malaria and other tropical diseases, Adler injected disease-causing parasites into his own body, in order to examine the way they worked in humans. Adler survived the experiments , but needless to say, the research procedure he followed involved a considerable amount of personal risk.

Eran Wolkowski 08072011
Eran Wolkowski

This is the place to mention a paper by the German Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas entitled "Philosophical Reflections on Experimenting with Human Subjects." In it, Jonas argues that even though the morality of such experiments is difficult to justify, the fact that a researcher makes his own body the subject of such a study is to be considered the highest moral level a physician-researcher can attain. Since Jonas lived in Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s, and taught for a short while at Hebrew University, the possibility that he and Adler knew each other cannot be dismissed. Perhaps this acquaintanceship was the source of inspiration for Jonas' important essay.

Posthumous publication

And now let us discuss "Shira," Shmuel Yosef Agnon's last great novel, which was first published 40 years ago this year. Agnon began writing the book in the late 1940s. Over the years he published only a few chapters - before, at a certain stage, he decided to stop work on it and shelved the manuscript. The writer died in 1970, and the following year the partially completed book was published, edited by his daughter, Emunah Yaron. Many people still remember the considerable acclaim the novel received upon publication, and its popularity among readers.

In "Shira," Agnon tells the story of Manfred Herbst, a middle-aged man who finds himself in a "midlife crisis," both professionally and personally. His work as a history professor suddenly seems trivial and barren to him, while his relationship with his wife Henrietta has also reached a dead end. It is under these circumstances that he meets a hospital nurse with the unusual name of Shira. (After the publication of Agnon's novel, the name became much more common among Israeli girls. ) The erotic relationship with her extricates him from his daily routine and affords him hope for renewal. With limited liability, of course.

Just as interesting as the plot of the novel is the social milieu in which it is set: With incredible precision, depth and acuity, Agnon describes in "Shira" the world of Hebrew University in the 1930s, and even though the description is restricted to a specific institution at a given period of time, the book has been perceived as a formative text with regard to the depiction of the nature, content and style of what we call "the academic world."

The book acquired its reputation in large part because it is a satire of academic life - a satire exposing the quarrels, rivalries, personal ambitions, jealousies and frustrations that are the professors' lot, and more specifically those in the humanities, whom Agnon knew well personally.

But this is just part of the story. With equal skill, Agnon also portrays the illuminated side of academic life in the book: the love of wisdom, the devotion to research, the willingness to lose one's life for the sake of the world of learning. And thus, alongside ridiculous scholars like Weltfremd and Bachlam, who populate the novel almost tediously, "Shira" also has characters like Taglicht and Prof. Neu, who are of personal and academic stature and whom the author admires.

At this point let us return to the story of the life of Prof. Saul Adler. If we open "Shira" (in its English translation, by Zeva Shapiro, Schocken Books, 1989 ) to pages 553-554, we will find the following scene: The protagonist, Herbst, is seen going out for a walk in the streets of Rehavia, in Jerusalem, which ever since its founding has been tagged "the professors' neighborhood." It is there, in the public park at the end of Rashba Street, that Herbst meets another university professor, whose name he does not mention - neither his real name nor a fictional one.

This is how Agnon describes him: "And now I will reveal in a whisper what was whispered to me. One day, he [that professor] wanted to study a particularly deadly tropical disease. But, in all the Land of Israel, he couldn't find anyone suffering from it. He exposed his own body to the disease and tried to cure himself with the drug he had invented."

And, Agnon adds: "Great German doctors report in their memoirs that, when they were trying to fathom the secret of a disease and its cure they would expose one of their patients to it. Not this Jerusalemite scientist. He tested the disease and the cure personally, on his own body, and in so doing he almost died. Now that he was recovering, he often went out for walks."

It seems indisputable that the character presented in these pages of "Shira" is none other than Saul Adler, who during the years in which the novel is set lived in Rehavia, just a few streets away from the park Agnon mentions. Anyone seeking confirmation of this assessment can find it in the lexicon "The Doctors of the Land of Israel," edited by Prof. Nissim Levy. There it is written succinctly: "Adler was immortalized in the novel 'Shira' by S.Y. Agnon, in the character of the scientist who risked his life for research purposes."

It is worth mentioning that Agnon and Adler were acquainted with each other. In the novelist's archive, for example, I found a letter the scientist sent him with greetings for the Hebrew New Year of 1954-1955, in which Adler thanks the author "for all the pleasure and satisfaction your writings have given me and without a doubt also many of the members of our people."

But this is not all: What is particularly interesting about the scene in "Shira" is Herbst's reaction to the encounter with Saul Adler - or the character representing him. Agnon describes this reaction later in the paragraph quoted above: "When Herbst first heard this story, tears rolled down his cheeks .... He and Herbst were not closely connected. One of them worked in the humanities; the other worked in science. But, since they worked in the same institution, they did know each other. When Herbst saw him, he bowed, kissed his hand, and went on his way."

That is to say: The mere rumor of Saul Adler's heroic deed moved the protagonist of the story to tears. And now, having occasioned to meet him face to face, he knelt before him and kissed his hand. Is there any greater gesture than that? By means of this bodily gesture, which is beyond words, Manfred Herbst, himself a historian who engages in research, expressed his total admiration for the personality of the scientist-researcher, who has put his life on the line, literally, with the aim of investigating the truth.

Posing a challenge

This understanding of the passage in the novel is reinforced later on the same page. After Herbst leaves the Adler character and exits the park, he is overtaken by musings and these are woven, in the nature of things, around the encounter he has just experienced. Again and again, Herbst turns over in his mind the significance of Adler's amazing deed: He performed the experiment on his own body, he knew the disease would cause him suffering and perhaps even endanger his life, and he did not fear harming himself for the sake of science and for the sake of malaria sufferers.

And then Herbst asks himself this question: "Would I do anything comparable? Who, in my field, would willingly risk his life to advance knowledge?"

That is to say: In the mode of research linked to Adler, which is identified with the willingness to risk oneself to the point of personal sacrifice, Agnon - by means of his character - depicts the criterion whereby it is necessary to judge, and in accordance with which the morality of a man of science is to be assessed, even if his professional field does not necessarily allow one to take a personal risk similar to that which Adler took.

Posing this challenge leads the protagonist to a moment of depression and mental weakness because of the low image he has of himself and the members of his circle - the professors engaging in the humanities.

However the narrator, by virtue of his authority, calls Herbst to order: Among other things, the narrator mentions Prof. Neu, whom readers identify with the great kabbala researcher Gershom Scholem, and whom Agnon chooses to depict as a model character. From here the way leads straight to stating that, despite the differences in the disciplines, there is in fact no difference between the great researchers active in the various realms - whether the natural sciences or the humanities - since what unites them, or what should unite them, is the persistent, stubborn and uncompromising search for truth.

As Agnon puts it: "Because of his wrinkled soul, because of his need to deprecate himself and his profession, Herbst forgot about all the true scholars, even Neu, whose entire lives are devoted, truly devoted, to their work. If need be, they would no doubt take risks in order to achieve their end - their sole end being true scholarship."

It is known that Agnon carefully weighed every word that he wrote. For that reason, it is worth paying attention to the way he formulates the statement about those he calls "the true scholars." In the Hebrew original, he writes that their "entire lives, their entire whole lives are devoted, truly devoted, to their work." "Entire lives" - twice; "devoted" - twice. All this is meant to emphasize that the "true" man of science" - and such men do exist - is one who acts within his professional field with supreme dedication, and who devotes to his profession his entire life, and not only part of it.

The continuation of the paragraph also requires explanation: "If need be, they would no doubt take risks in order to achieve their end - their sole end being true scholarship." Here the narrator returns us to the life story of Saul Adler, relating to it as a metaphor for scientific activity in general. Then comes the tail end of the sentence, which is a summary of everything: " ... their sole end being true scholarship."

Out of the hundreds of pages that make up the book "Shira," I have spoken here about only one passage of less than two pages. However, anyone who examines the other parts of the novel will find that this scene and everything branching out from it do not constitute an isolated, random, detached incident lacking connection to what happens elsewhere in the book. The opposite is the case: The discussion of science, the scientist's moral commitment, the relationship between the scientist as an individual and science as a discipline, the relationship between art and science, and also the relationship between science and Torah - all these combine into a sophisticated discussion running as a leitmotif throughout the book. This is what makes the discourse on academia, which is one of the notable characteristics of "Shira," so complex and many-faceted.

Good literature is not written in order to serve a purpose or to preach morality. However, good literature is an endless resource for assessing ourselves, understanding the other and getting to know the world and the environment in which we live. True, in our very brief discussion of "Shira," we have ignored an overview of the whole novel, nor have we spoken at all about Herbst's troubles, about his heartbreaking longing for the nurse Shira, about Shira's disappearance from his life's horizon, or about their renewed encounter - at least according to one version of the book - in the leper colony. Rather, we have led ourselves onto a quiet sidepath, away from the main thoroughfare of the story, and there, of all places, almost incidentally, we have followed the charged, fraught encounter between the protagonist and the Adler character in the park in Rehavia. And from there we took off - together with Agnon - on musings about the purpose of scientific research and the lofty demands it makes of the individual who chooses to engage in it. These musings are good for any time, but also at a time when we are looking back 40 years to the day that this great novel, its author's last, was published.

Prof. Laor is a teacher of Hebrew literature at Tel Aviv University, and the author of a 1998 biography of S.Y. Agnon.