Philosophy, freedom, and Malamud’s Fixer

‘If I have any philosophy’, said Yakov Bok, ‘it is that life could be better than it is’. Yakov (the maligned hero of Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Fixer (1966)) was a poor handyman, or ‘fixer’, who lived in a small Jewish village in pre-revolutionary Russia. When his wife left him for a stranger, he decided he was ready for change. Yakov packed up his tools and set out for Kiev to start anew. He threw his religious items into a river on the way to the city. He abandoned his name and the final evidence of his origin just as quickly when offered a job by a wealthy anti-Semite in a part of town restricted to Jews.

But the past has a way of catching up with us. One day a boy was found murdered and drained of blood in a cave near Yakov’s factory. When, in the course of their investigations, the authorities discovered that Yakov was a Jew, they accused him of ritual murder. Anti-Semites to a man, the authorities tried everything they could to frame the fixer for the crime. The fact that Yakov had rejected Judaism and identified as a freethinker counted for nothing.

Yakov was thrown into solitary confinement while charges were prepared against him. The transformations that he’d made on the way to Kiev now seemed entirely cosmetic. Like a child, he had assumed he could lose his shadow just by looking the other way. The truth, Yakov now realized, was that he was shackled to his identity just as surely as he was locked in this filthy cell.

For weeks and months Yakov languished in the cell without charge. The shadow of the past became huge and malignant, filling the space of his life and world. Yakov’s father-in-law called on him to repent, to fall to his knees in prayer. But Yakov despaired of God and used the time to think.

This is how he discovered philosophy. To fill his days and make sense of his situation, Yakov would reflect on the philosophy of Benedict de Spinoza, whom he’d read at nights in his village. Yakov, by his own admission, was no intellectual. But something about Spinoza’s work kept drawing him back, as if to complete the pieces of a puzzle. Yakov tried explaining this to a sympathetic magistrate. ‘What led you to read Spinoza in the first place?’ the magistrate asked. ‘Was it because he was a Jew?’ ‘No, your honor’, Yakov replied:

I didn’t know who or what he was when I first came across the book – they don’t exactly love him in the synagogue, if you’ve read the story of his life. I found it in a junkyard in a nearby town, paid a kopek, and left cursing myself for wasting money hard to come by. Later I read through a few pages and kept on going as though there were a whirlwind at my back. As I say, I didn’t understand every word but when you’re dealing with such ideas you feel as though you were taking a witch’s ride. After that I wasn’t the same man.

It was philosophy that broke the fixer and philosophy put him together again. By the end of Malamud’s novel, Spinoza’s philosophy has showed Yakov how to turn his situation around, triumphing over his torments by incorporating them into a process of personal transformation. Philosophy does not literally set Yakov free. But Spinoza’s reflections on freedom and necessity transform the fixer from the ground up, to the point that he becomes the hero that he never expected to be. Finally, the authorities, who had found themselves incapable of making a case out of their trumped-up charges, offer Yakov a pardon. But Yakov, by this point, has come to see his plight as a reflection of the institutionalised anti-Semitism of the Russian state and refuses this gesture, vowing that he will remain in prison until he has received a fair trial.

When we say goodbye to Yakov, he is still in chains, but his heart and mind are free. He has found the sense of purpose that he previously lacked, for while he is imprisoned he shares with others the revolutionary sentiment that is sweeping Russia and will presently shatter the Tzarist cage. As Yakov is marched to his trial through a cheering crowd, he reflects: ‘What is it Spinoza says? If the state acts in ways that are abhorrent to human nature it’s the lesser evil to destroy it. Death to the anti-Semites! Long live revolution! Long live liberty!

Yakov Bok – handyman, prisoner, revolutionary hero. Yakov is no intellectual. But Yakov is heroic for the fact that he is prepared to confront his situation, and turn this situation around. Through philosophical reflection, Yakov learns to rethink his situation to the point that it becomes a catalyst for positive life-change. Seizing the opportunity that his situation presents, Yakov changes himself and thereby changes his life completely.

Philosophy can’t change the world. But philosophy can help you change the way that you see the world, and this can make all the difference, especially in times of change. Change presents opportunities as well as challenges. To grasp these opportunities, we often need to do some work on ourselves. We need, for a start, the courage to look change in the eye. We need an empowered, visionary outlook on life and change, inspired by the possibilities of the present and attuned to the opportunities of the future.

Once you’ve learned to see the possibilities in change, you can turn bleak situations into opportunities for empowerment. Take it from Yakov: life can be better than it is. When change becomes an opportunity, life becomes an adventure.

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