You won’t believe what these guys do for humanity.
Rivers of blood have flowed, columns of smoke have obscured the sky, but surviving all these dooms, the tradition has remained inviolate down to our own time. According to it, the world reposes upon thirty-six Just Men, the Lamed-Vov, indistinguishable from simple mortals; often they are unaware of their station. But if just one of them were lacking, the sufferings of mankind would poison even the souls of the newborn, and humanity would suffocate with a single cry. For the Lamed-Vov are the hearts of the world multiplied, and into them, as into one receptacle, pour all our griefs.
In The Last of the Just, Andre Schwarz-Bart wrote of the Lamed Vovnicks, 36 men who, the Talmud tells, bear the misery of all humanity so that the rest of us may survive. They do so at tremendous cost to themselves. (“[Some] remain forever inconsolable at human woe, so that God himself cannot warm them.”) They take on the sorrows that are too terrible for us to contend with and spare us from the Lord’s wrath by virtue of their righteousness.
But times change and our species’ survival becomes dependent on different things. The sufferings of humanity have perhaps grown too great for even the purest to carry around with them as they go through their life’s journey; if God has not yet found cause to destroy the world for its depravity He has clearly given up or stopped paying attention altogether. No, in this world the 36 men who endure our agonies must hoist a different sack of discomforts upon their weary frames.
Look upon them, our new Lamed Vovnicks. These are the men now who offer themselves up as fuel for the indignation engine that powers the Internet, the machine we all use to distract ourselves from just how empty we are. These men (and I know I will get an argument along the lines of why should they all be men, but trust me, ladies, this is not the area in which you want to argue for equality) put themselves forward, time and time again, so that everyone can expel their anger and outrage and feel better about themselves for the few seconds it takes to tweet out an expression of contempt and superiority. Never mind that the comical ignorance they display is of no matter or merit; they are not there to throw off substance. They are their to suffer the indignities that we wish so badly to cast off from ourselves and place on someone else, someone who is more capable of taking the weight.
The Lamed Vovnicks never reveal themselves. In some versions of the legend they don’t even know that this is the role they have been given. But I think we are all pretty aware that, of our current Lamed Vovnicks, the other 35 pale in comparison to writer Jonathan Franzen, who must know that no good can ever come of talking to the press about anything and yet continues to do so. Why does he put himself in such a position? The only possible explanation is the one I’ve given you right here.
Anyway, if you have not seen the entire interview already through various screenshots over the last few hours, go ahead and read it. There are any number of, uh, interesting thoughts expressed for you to enjoy, but my particular favorite is this:
I’m so not confrontational; I don’t think of myself as a brave person, but I suspect that if this country fell into fascism, and journalists were being persecuted and freedom of speech was being trampled on, I would probably stand up and get myself shot over it, just because there are a few things I really care about.
There is a lot one could say here, but I don’t want to fall into the role of someone who shifts his shame onto the shoulders of a man whom so many others are already weighing down. I will simply direct you to one of the greatest, truest accountings of mankind that I know. But I digress. Don’t go overboard with all the gnashing and the wailing about Jonathan Franzen: You love him. You couldn’t live without him. He gives you purpose. He keeps you from despair. He’s doing it for you. And anyway, he’s not wrong about everything either.