Saturday, May 23, 2009

Monsieur Chouchani

There are figures in the world who are so much like characters in fairy tales that one doubts they are real. Monsieur Chouchani, teacher of both the French-Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas and author Elie Wiesel (among dozens of others, less well-known) is such a one. He was the archetype of the wandering wizard, the mad sage: Teiresias straight out of the pages of the Odyssey, Gandalf, or Merlin, or Obi-Wan. An Eastern European Jew born in the late 19th C, he was possessed of a prodigious memory, teaching Talmud, higher mathematics, classical literature, philosophy of language and meaning.
Friends and students knew him only as "Mr. Chouchani" (pronounced "Shoushani"). He would sometimes call himself "Prof. Chouchani," but that was apparently only one of the names he used. He spent his life traveling in East Europe, France, the United States, British Mandatory Palestine, North Africa and South America. A solitary, eternal wanderer, he always wore pauper's clothes and sought food and lodging among friends. He zealously concealed his past, yet wherever he went, he left behind many admirers who were astounded by the scope of his knowledge - in both Jewish and general fields - and his skill at integrating various realms to produce stunning innovations. Yair Sheleg, 2003
His real name and nationality remain uncertain. The reasons for his wandering unknown.

His privacy was obsessive, he had some sort of contamination fear, he was angry and dismissive - a "cruel teacher" Levinas called him, though he voluntary engaged Chouchani as his master. More about this fascinating character here and here.


Retriever said...

Love this! Thank you! Off to learn some more about him. Wondering (not to be reductionist or labelling, just curious...) if perhaps Asperger's? The savant stuff always fascinating. BUt my kids throw thigns at me and tell me to shut up "Mom, you are always diagnosing people...." I suppose so. Partly because I look for accomplished people who make a contribution to the world despite difficulties or diagnoses (hoping to encourage my kid).

It's interesting how some people develop the savant gift and channel it into scholarship,whereas others use it as a parlor trick or are bullied to enrich parents with it and either turn against it (along with the parents) or lose the gift (God mercifully taking away what He gave, so that kid should not be made a performing stunt with it).

My mother was a savant in youth, but it evaporated during her mid 20s (as her mood difficulties worsened). The mind is strange....

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I had the same diagnostic thought, retriever.

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