Who Is Peter Gimpel?
Copyright © 2000 by Red Heifer Press
The son of one great musician (pianist Jakob Gimpel) and nephew of another (violinist Bronislaw Gimpel), Peter Gimpel absorbed early on a love for music which proved later to be a major influence in his writing. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he attended school in England and Switzerland, studying piano with his father and eliciting more praise for his writing than his playing. Encouraged by Marta Feuchtwanger and Henry Miller, Gimpel turned to writing in earnest while completing his formal education in Italy. He obtained a laureate degree (cum laude) from the University of Perugia with a dissertation on ancient Greek popular theatre (Antidioniso: Introduzione Sistematica allo Studio del Mimo Greco, U. degli Studi di Perugia, 1976, 395 pages).
Returning to California, Gimpel served as a Post Graduate Research Classicist on the TLG (Thesaurus Linguae Graecae) at UC Irvine, where he produced the first comprehensive bibliography—containing more than 500 items—of Philodemus, the Epicurean philosopher whose work is known mainly from carbonized papyrus fragments. While studying law at Loyola-Marymount University (J.D. 1984), Gimpel began the challenging task of organizing his father’s and uncle’s papers and collecting and preserving master tapes of their performances, broadcasts and commercial recordings. As curator of the emerging Jakob & Bronislaw Gimpel Archives, he founded the Leonore Library of Musical Masters, a commercial enterprise dedicated to keeping his father’s and uncle’s extensive catalogue of recordings in circulation. An advocate for scholarship and education in the humanistic tradition, Peter Gimpel is also the founder and director of Red Heifer Press, a publishing enterprise devoted to works of exceptional interest and merit in the humanities and literature, as well as to Torah and Judaica.
The unusual conjunction of humanities with Torah/Judaica is perhaps not as odd as it might seem. Peter’s great grandfather was Yaakov Ber Gimpel, founder of the famous Yiddish Theatre of Lemberg (Lvov). His grandfather, besides holding the musical directorship of the theatre, directed the choir of the Lemberg Synagogue. His maternal grandfather was a devoutly observant rabbi and chassid. Increasingly disturbed by his own alienation from Jewish life and culture, Peter had already begun, in 1988, to seek out the Jewish heritage of his grandparents. Determined to integrate his humanistic education with a new life of Torah observance and study, he published a selection of his poems, produced during the years of transition and conflict. The collection, Twilight with Halfmoon Rising, received outstanding reviews in the Jewish Press, which hailed Gimpel as "A major Jewish poet in our midst—but major!" and "a rare breed among contemporary poets".
Indeed, Gimpel has kept himself aloof from current poetic trends and fashions, preferring a more classical rigor of form. His poems characteristically combine a rich contemporary diction with a complex rhetoric of logic, metaphor and allegory.
His latest work is Professor Gansa's Dream, or Science as a Naked Lightbulb: a parable in 75 "stanzos", comprising a Jewish Reply to Carl Sagan's Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. The poem tells the story of a scientist consumed by a desire to uncover the secret of Creation. It is followed by scholarly end-notes, exposing Sagan's fuzzy thinking, sloppy scholarship and self-hating anti-Judaism (click here for reviews). Asked why he would target Carl Sagan, of all people, Gimpel answers, "Look: the man is a cultural hero. He did some good things. But it is a very serious matter when such a person, a person who enjoys—even from the grave—such great popularity, starts to denigrate Judaism and Jewish History. We have seen such things before, and it does not bode well. In The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan says some really stupid, really outrageous things about religion, Gd, and the Jews. In the process, he distorts sources, misreads texts, and misrepresents some basic facts. Yet he continues to garner almost nothing but praise and adulation, while The Demon-Haunted World has been widely hailed as a kind of "manifesto for clear thought"! Somebody has to stand up and challenge him publicly on his handling of facts, texts and logic. Yes, I realize that he can no longer respond in person. But does he need to? His book speaks for him. Until now, its voice has drowned out the indignation of his more thoughtful opponents. Besides, I had never read any of his books until the summer of 1999. I was browsing the UCLA bookstore when this big Viking physicist strikes up a conversation with me and tells me I ought to read The Demon-Haunted World. So I did."
Of his aspirations as a writer, Gimpel confesses, "Ever since I read Hermann Hesse's The Bead Game as a boy, I wanted to write a story as if it were music. Thus, I strive to work with various themes, developing, interweaving and combining, in the manner of a musical composition or "bead game". Douglas Hofstadter has done something similar in his wonderful Gödel, Escher, Bach, but coming from a very different direction. I think The Carnevalis of Eusebius Asch (a multi-level romance in which the spiritual mentalities of Jew and non-Jew are contrasted and played against a background of passion and philosophy, music and mysticism) comes closer to what I hope to accomplish. Words have never been enough for me. Music is more powerful. Its impact is stronger, its effect more profound and enduring. As Hesse understood very well, the musical paradigm offers a matrix for all future forms of artistic expression. For music has this 'self-revealing' power, the mysterious ability to educate the listener to an understanding of its contents. By contrast, much of the avant-garde literature which replaced 'linear' storytelling was incomplete without a supplementary ‘key' (usually jealously withheld!) to explain it. I believe that Hesse was calling for a new kind of literature—a new, multilevel artform that, with a little effort, a little thoughtfulness on the reader's part, would be self-revealing—in the same way that music is self-revealing. I want to try to answer that call, and I hope that other writers will, too."