Sunday, May 24, 2015

Le Mot Juste or To Goad the Ox

The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas by Gustave Flaubert

To dissect is a form of revenge.
        George Sand

“From infancy, we are told, [Flaubert] refused to suffer fools gladly;” writes French-born American historian of ideas and culture, Jacques Barzun, in his introduction to his own translation of this remarkable literary curio, known in French as Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues, “he would note down the inanities uttered by an old lady who used to visit his parents, and by his twentieth year he already had in mind making a dictionary of such remarks. And of course, like every French artist since the Romantic period, he loathed the bourgeois, whom he once for all defined as ‘a being whose mode of feeling is low.’" A highly deliberate writer, he detested platitudes and clichés, those borrowed, self-satisfied, expressly unconscious ideas and expressions “with which the ‘right thinking’ swaddle their minds.”

No mere pedant, Flaubert believed that language truly mattered, that the words and phrases with which people interacted with one another, and with which they described and imagined the world, was a faithful reflection of both who they were and who they might be. For Flaubert, already wary of the 19th century’s mass production of words and ideas, platitudes and clichés were not merely literary faux-pas, to be mocked and derided by those in the know, but "but philosophic clues from which he inferred the transformation of the human being under machine capitalism. This he took as a personal affront. Representing Mind, he fought the encroachment of matter and mechanism into the empty places that should have been minds." Significantly, the very word cliché has a mechanical origin, referring, as it does, to the sound made by the metal printing plates for moveable type (called stereotypes) that click and reproduce the same image mechanically without end. Yet Flaubert's war against linguistic complacency was also something more: it was a revolt against the tyranny of convention, an attack on mindless dogmatism, an assault upon the smugly stable status quo. Writes Barzun, in describing Flaubert's critique of all such ready-made phrases and expressions: "They all indicate fixity, which on reflection is seen to go beyond forms of speech or lack of ideas or aimless parroting. Social in origin, it is lust for order through convention." 

Here is an illustrative, often humorous sampling of some of the reigning bromides of his day, quite a number of which will certainly be familiar:

Accident. Always "regrettable" or "unlucky"—as if a mishap might sometimes be a cause for rejoicing.

Ambition. Always preceded by "mad," unless it be "noble."

Baldness. Always "premature," caused by youthful excesses—or by the hatching of great thoughts.

Beethoven. Do not pronounce Beathoven. Be sure to gush when one of his works is being played.

Buying and Selling. The goal of life.

Congratulations.  Always "hearty," "sincere," etc.

Conversation. Politics and religion must be kept out of it.

Darwin. The fellow who says we're sprung from monkeys.

Descartes. Cogito ergo sum.
Evidence. Is "plain" when not "overwhelming."

Greek.  Whatever one cannot understand is Greek.

Heat. Always "unbearable."

Hydra-Headed (Monster). Of anarchy, socialism, and so on of all alarming systems. We must try and conquer it.

Hypothesis. Often "rash," always "bold."

Indolence. Product of warm climates.

Languages (Modern).  Our country’s ills are due to our ignorance of them.

Locket. Must contain a lock of hair or a photograph.

Machiavelli. Though you have not read him, consider him a scoundrel.

Machiavellian. Word only to be spoken with a shudder. 

Mephistophelean. Applies to any bitter laugh.

Nature. How beautiful is Nature! Repeat every time you are in the country.

Nectar. Confuse with ambrosia.

Old. Always "prematurely."

Original. Make fun of everything that is original, hate it, beat it down, annihilate it if you can.

Oysters. Nobody eats them any more: too expensive!

Paganini. Never tuned his violin. Famous for his long fingers.

Philosophy. Always snicker at it.

Photography. Will make painting obsolete.

Principles. Always "eternal." Nobody can tell their nature or number; no matter, they are sacred all the same.

Progress. Always "headlong" and "ill-advised."

Property. One of the foundations of society. More sacred than religion.

Regards. Always the best.

Seashells. You must bring some back from the seashore.

Suicide. Proof of cowardice.

Taste.  "What is simple is always in good taste." Always say this to a woman who apologizes for the inadequacy of her dress.

Wagner. Snicker on hearing his name and joke about the music of the future.

Workman. Always honest—unless he is rioting.

If you are anything like me, as you read these entries you were thinking of the clichés and platitudes, the many howlers, that you yourself would add to the list. Surely first, most pressing, of my own many favorites would be the trusty epithet, looters, a term recently resurrected by liberals and conservatives alike, following the riots in Ferguson, in their smug, often specious coverage of the similar, more recent rioting in Baltimore. It seems that few if any of them saw the irony in chastising the rioters—mostly restless, disenfranchised African American youth—for their ransacking and burning of a local CVS (not a cozy ‘mom and pop shop,’ mind you, but part of a billion dollar corporate empire) in a nation the entire economy of which was recently brought to its knees by the ruthless, catastrophic, still-unpunished, ultimately government-sanctioned, looting of the American middle and working classes by our own hallowed banks and corporations. This even-then-well-known, well-documented bundle of brazen corporate swindles resulted, not in the pilfering of some aspirin, lipstick, hand cream, and diapers, but in an economic earthquake felt round the world, one that crippled the U.S. stock market, shattered the U.S. housing market, triggered a dangerous spike in U.S. unemployment, and has been calculated to have cost the average U.S. household between $50, 000 and $125, 000 in lost revenue, lost earnings, and additional taxes, taxes which subsequently were used by the federal government to rescue these same corporations and banks. Of course not even the term ‘looters’ is sufficient to describe them. 

If Flaubert was concerned about this matter then, in the late 1800's, it might behoove us, in this "global village" of ours, in this dazzling era of high-tech media union and collaboration, to give the matter of our language some thought. Even among my most progressive and skeptical friends, I have long-detected a startling uniformity of ideas, of modes of expression, of political and rhetorical thinking about the world, most if not all of which appears to have been gleaned from the same four 'right-thinking' sources: The New Yorker, The Economist, NPR, and The New York Times. It is a phenomenon that Walter Lippmann, in his astonishingly fresh and provocative 1922 book, Public Opinion, famously termed "the manufacture of consent"—a phrase, an expression, the great Flaubert would have certainly called juste.  

Gustave Flaubert is best known for his novel Madame Bovary. Read the lovely, light-as-air translation by Lydia Davis, if you can. The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas is published by New Directions.

Peter Adam Nash

Saturday, May 16, 2015


The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees

How easy it is to destroy what has taken so long to build! The ruins of Syria--the impulse toward destruction is irresistible. History: the struggle of a few to build something they are condemned to see blown to bits by the fanatics while the indifferent look on. 

“The split in America, [and elsewhere] rather than simply economic, is between those who embrace reason, who function in the real world of cause and effect, and those who, numbed by isolation and despair, now seek meaning in a mythical world of intuition, a world that is no longer reality-based, a world of magic.”  [Chris Hedges, American Fascists]

"O soldiers of the Islamic State, be ready for the final campaign of the crusaders. Yes, by Allah’s will, it will be the final one. We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women, by the permission of Allah, the Exalted. If we do not reach that time, then our children and grandchildren will reach it, and they will sell your sons as slaves at the slave market." [Public statement of ISIS, 2014]

"Mythical world of intuition"--this is surely the world of, among others, ISIS and its enemy Bashar al-Assad, the optometrist turned Leader of Syria.  The Arab Spring came late to Syria. "Bashar al-Assad, helped by the nasty reputation of his security services, looked as thought he would survive...What changed everything was an incident which threw into sharp relief the untackled problems of his security state. At the beginning of March 2011, children aged nine to fifteen wrote graffiti on the wall of their school in the depressed southern town of Der'a calling for the fall of the regime..." It was this simple act--and the later arrest, detention, and probable torture of these school children that brought the Arab Spring, at long last, to Syria. Assad's mythical world met reality in that year, and the unraveling of Syria began in earnest. [John McHugo, Syria]

"Where once your eyes met the walls of buildings, a silent plain now extended to infinity. Was it a cemetery? But what beings had buried their dead there and then put chimneys on the graves? Nothing grew there but the chimneys emerging from the ground like monuments, like dolmens or admonitory fingers. DId the dead lying below them breathe the blue ether through those chimneys?" [W.G. Sebald, "Between History and Natural History," from Campo Santo

"To a survival machine, another survival machine (which is not its own child or another close relative) is a part of environment, like a rock or a river or a lump of food. It is something that gets in the way, or something that can be exploited." [Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, file under 'the treason of the intellectuals']

“Out of the night of history old shadows are appearing which menace their bourgeois complacency. Growing groups of unknown men out of the streets are laughing the unbeliever’s hollow laugh at all those things the democrat has taught the people to hold dear. Worst of all, a figure appears that they had thought was gone for ever over the great scaffolds of the Reformation … The oligarchs and the democrats dread this classic figure more than anarchy – for it is the figure of the Leader …” [James Drennan, Oswald Mosley and British Fascism]

The Silence and the Roar by the great Aleppian novelist Nihad Sirees asks the question: what is the cost of defying a corrupt status quo? The answer, not surprisingly, has it origins in Kafka, in all the obvious places, but also in one of the parables:

"Everything came to his aid during the construction work. Foreign workers brought the marble blocks, trimmed and fitted to one another. The stones rose and placed themselves according to the gauging motions of his fingers. No building ever came into being as easily as did this temple--or rather, this temple came into being the way a temple should. Except that, to wreak a spite or to desecrate or destroy it completely, instruments obviously of a magnificent sharpness had been used to scratch on every stone--from what quarry had they come?--for an eternity outlasting the temple, the clumsy scribblings of senseless children's hands, or rather the entries of barbaric mountain dwellers." [Kafka, "The Building of the Temple"]

Fathi Sheen, the protagonist of Sirees' deceptively simple novel, falls unwittingly into the mechanisms of the temple, the Temple of the Leader--and from the moment of Sheen's fall,  The Silence and the Roar becomes a savage satire of all dictatorial regimes, but of Syria's in particular. The first half of the novel certainly invokes Kafka; the second half Orwell--in any case, as Sirees puts it in the afterword (written in 2012 as Aleppo was destroyed), "We must ask, alongside the characters in this novel: What kind of surrealism is this?" 

Or perhaps a better way to approach the civil war in Syria--the formation of ISIS, Assad's deliberate destruction of his own country as a means of denying a dizzying array of rebel groups a nation to aspire toward governing, the exploitation of Syria's misery by cynical forces throughout the Middle East--how did the surreal become the real?

The Silence and the Roar, by Nihad Sirees, translated from the Arabic by Max Weiss, is published by The Other Press (2013).

George Ovitt (5/16/15)

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Where the Stones Come From

Picnic Grounds: A Novel in Fragments by Oz Shelach

One Afternoon

            A professor of History from Bayit Va-Gan took his family for a picnic in a quiet pinewood 
            near Giv’at Shaul, formerly known as Deir Yassin. It was not too cold to be in the shade and 
            not too warm to build a fire, so the professor passed on to his son the camping skills he had 
            acquired in the army. They arranged three square stones in a U, to block the wind, leaving 
            access on the fourth side. They stacked broken branches on top of the twigs on top of dry pine 
            needles. He let his son put a match to it. Listening carefully, they heard a faint low hum from the 
            curves of the winding highway, hidden from view by the trees. The professor did not talk of the 
            village, origin of the stones. He did not talk of the village school, now a psychiatric hospital, on 
            the other side of the hill. He imagined that he and his family were having a picnic, unrelated to 
            the village; enjoying its grounds outside history.

From 1947-1949 the newly minted Israelis, the majority of them just arrived as refugees from Hitler’s Europe, conspired, in their ironic and headlong embrace of nationalism, to forcibly remove more than 700, 000 Arabs from their homes and villages in what is now the State of Israel, terrorizing the people, burning their houses, and pillaging their goods—their livestock, their utensils, their tools. The photograph above depicts the remains of an Arab village after the Arabs themselves had been removed (see George Ovitt’s earlier post on the remarkable 1949 Israeli novel, Khirbet Khizeh, 9/2/13).

For all of the post-war wonder that was the birth of Israel, for all of its phoenix-like glory and potential as a force for good in the Middle East, it cannot be understood today (nor truly, justly, appreciated) without also recognizing the violent and systematic expulsion of Arabs from the land, a fact that is now and will always be an essential part of its national-cultural DNA. It is a practice (this ethnic cleansing avant le mot), begun as early as the 1930’s, that continues to this day in the cynical, nearly relentless government-sanctioned expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a movement now motivated less by the utopian (if still fundamentally racist) Zionism of the early European settlers than by the hidebound, often hateful, always fiercely anti-democratic fanaticism of the Jewish ultra-Orthodox, the aggressive, politically intractable Haredim, who exert (with the help of U.S. taxpayers and such bullying right-wing American lobbying groups as AIPAC) what is now a veritable stranglehold over public policy and discourse, both here in the U.S. and in Israel itself, what is still a predominantly secular, democratic, and cosmopolitan state.

Now here is where it gets tricky. Take all that you have ever read about Israel, about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, then spend a few weeks there and see what sifts out in the end. I can almost guarantee you (even those of you who—like me—are intensely critical of Israeli policy and practice toward the Palestinians) that you will leave the country charmed, not only by the general brilliance and sophistication of Israeli Jews, but by their humanity and compassion as a people, not to mention astounded by what they have done, in some sixty short years, to transform that arid, much disputed patch of land. You will leave deeply moved by them (for, such is the climate there that, unless you have connections, you are not likely to get to know any Arabs) and inspired by the land itself. Which is not to say that you will leave convinced of anything political at all. If anything your convictions will be muddled by your stay. What is clear is that, however deep and well-founded your criticism of the Israeli government itself, you will like the people there and suddenly find it hard, if not impossible, to generalize about them, to critique them as a lot. It is exactly what happened to me. It is why the Jews of Israel still fill me with hope.

Which brings me to the point of this post: In my many years of living and traveling, it has become clear to me that one of the truest ways of experiencing the lives of others, short of meeting them in person, in the homes and neighborhoods where they live, is by reading about them in their own books, by seeing them fleshed out before you—in novels and poems and plays—as living, breathing, struggling human beings. "Literature is by its very nature humanist," writes Jewish-Italian author Alberto Moravia in his cogent, deeply heartening collection of essays on humanism called Man As An End—making reading itself a powerful act of faith.  

So if you really want some clarity about what is happening in Israel today, if you wish, as author Damon Galgut puts it, to "see through events to the people behind them," then forget the newspapers and cable news programs for awhile and read a novel or a volume of poetry instead. As I have insisted before, what the regional novelists, playwrights, and poets have to tell us about the conflict there is exactly what we need most: the reminder that the wages of every political stunt and machination, every embedded news report, every grandstanding politician, political lobbyist, and religious extremist, are tallied in human lives—lives like yours, lives like mine. A good place to start might be this short, easily accessible novel, Picnic Grounds. 

When interviewed about this 2003 novel, author Oz Shelach, in an effort to describe the often deeply conflicted attitude of Israeli Jews toward their own history, told the following story, plainly echoed in the first short chapter of his novel with which I opened this post:

I think denial is built into the national culture… Let me illustrate with an example: My cousin’s husband published a guidebook in Hebrew called Fun Family Tours, which is basically an outdoors tour guide with additional games to play with the kids in the car. He took many of the pictures himself, and they’re striking—there’s so much rubble, so many structures that used to be people’s homes, and traces of their agriculture. Of course these are all indigenous Palestinian traces, but they’re described variously as “an abandoned orchard,” “a deserted village,” or as “ancient structures.” The people who used to live there are sometimes two miles away in a refugee camp, but they’re invisible. 

Inspired by Thomas Bernhard’s laconic miniatures, The Voice Imitator, Shelach’s “novel in fragments” reads like a collection of modern parables about the tormented land he loves, stories as remarkable for the things left unsaid as for those so beautifully said. Described as “the most relentlessly restrained cartographer of the current Israeli scene,” Shelach is also an archeologist, preoccupied with the ever-more-pressing facts and implications of the past, so that if history is in part the record of our complicity as human beings, we have writers like Shelach to show us the stones. 

Oz Shelach was born in West Jerusalem in 1968 and has been a journalist and editor for Israeli radio and magazines.

Peter Adam Nash

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Blissless Ignorance

Badenheim 1939 by Aharon Appelfeld

Books about endings, written in what Edward Said called "late style"--endings not of romances or of nations, but of epochs, of entire cultures: Joseph Roth, The Radetzkey March; Franz Werfel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh; Pat Barker, Regeneration (and the others of this trilogy); Lampedusa's The Leopard; John Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga; Howard's End by E.M. Forester; Andrei Bely's Petersburg; and, the greatest of them all, Mann's Magic Mountain. Central to each of these novels (and there are many others) is a sense of cultural exhaustion, a mood of nostalgia and reminiscence, and a style that is deeply ironic. Each of these novels was written with retrospective knowledge of the disasters that they recount--the end of the Hapsburgs, the Great War, the Revolution of 1905, the long decline of the Ancient Regime. The novel in late style is a European and, with a writer like Oe and Kawabata, a Japanese phenomenon: I can't think of a single example of an American novel that fits the model unless one counts James as an American writer rather than as an English novelist who happened to have been born in Boston. (There's also Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools, but I hesitate to include this unwieldy and, ultimately, failed seaborne Magic Mountain with such august company.)  I have heard it said that Hawthorne is a novelist of cultural (Puritan) endings, but the genre that I am thinking of excludes allegory by definition--its focus is on human beings in their historical condition. Hemingway and Fitzgerald? No: fecklessness doesn't count--The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby have the moral depth of On the Road.

Anyway, among the very finest novels of endings, written in a perfect version of late style, is Aharon Appelfeld's remarkable Badenheim 1939.  On the cusp of the disaster that is about to overtake Europe's Jews, a group of dilettantes gathers in the German resort town of Badenheim for the annual arts festival organized by the impresario Dr. Pappenheim. There's not a word of politics spoken: all talk is of culture, pastries, romance, and, of course, past festivals (always the past). At the same time, and with the ominousness of a Biblical portent, a team of "Sanitary Inspectors" gathers in the town--nameless and indistinct representatives of the State--and, little by little, they enclose Badenheim in a cocoon of bureaucratic repression--they build a ghetto. With brilliant strokes whose power is cumulative rather than apparent, Appelfeld intimates the doom that is descending over the resort and its oblivious inhabitants. From a mere "sanitary inspection," to the closing of buildings, to the isolation of the town, Badenheim, like Warsaw or Lodz, is shut off from the outside world:

"Since one day ran into the next and the sentries [just now mentioned--they've materialized out of thin air] at the gate informed [the salesman] that there was no intention at present of opening it to free traffic, he came to the conclusion that there was no point in living like a thief in the back quarters of the hotel, and he took himself a proper room, as befitting the representative of a well-known firm. The other guests were as delighted with him as if he were a messenger bringing glad tidings from afar...[the waiter] never stopped talking about his two sons who had been imprisoned in a barracks by a General. 'They must be exercising now,' he would say. 'They must be running.'"

Pride in appearances; wishful thinking; a focus on empty gestures; deadened curiosity; days that lack the texture of change and that fold into one another so that time disappears (Mann evokes this sense of timelessness better than any other novelist); ominous persons, unnamed and unknown, come and go, causing ripples of unease; the volition of the characters is sapped by the weight of boredom. There is only indifference--no happiness, no bliss, only numb acceptance. Appelfeld's gradual evocation of a sense of dread is brilliant, unsparing. No one can choose or judge or even feel:

"...their amazement was cut short. An engine, an engine coupled to fifty freight cars, emerged from the hills and stopped at the station. Its appearance was as sudden as if it had risen from a pit in the ground. 'Get in!' yelled invisible voices. and the people were sucked in. Even those who were standing with a bottle of lemonade in their hands, a bar of chocolate, the headwaiter with his dog--they were all sucked in as easily as grains of wheat poured into a funnel."

The train, naturally, is headed for Poland--for the Generalgouvernment, where most the killing would be done. The summer residents of Badenheim, the pleasure-seekers and connoisseurs, have been eagerly anticipating the journey to Warsaw--they've been told, not commanded, that Jews must register with the Sanitary Commission (they register eagerly, thanking the registrar for the good order of the process), and that they will be allowed to travel to Warsaw. The Polish musician Samitzky insists that "In Poland everything was beautiful, everything was interesting."

One of the most powerful stylistic and thematic devices found in novels like Badenheim 1939 is the evocation of yearning, the desire for something that cannot be named or described. This yearning is, of course, the psychological recognition that meaning has been emptied from the world--a fact that is the source of all literary irony. "The people were being driven out of their minds by their desires." But for what? There's art and love and Bienenstich and disjointed conversation, but something is missing. If it isn't to be found in Badenheim, then perhaps one will find it in Warsaw. Besides, "In Poland there are lots of Jews. The Jews help one another you know."

Which brings me to Hannah Arendt. You will perhaps recall her 1963 report on the Holocaust and the Nuremberg trials, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, a book whose title and contents inflamed a remarkable debate, a debate intense enough to incite a library of rebuttals--see especially The Ambiguity of Virtue by Bernard Wasserstein. Is Appelfeld "blaming the victim," as Arendt was accused of doing?

Is the obtuse acceptance of the creeping repressions of the "Sanitary Commission" more than satire--is Appelfeld's melancholy novel lamenting, or mocking, the naive refusal of European Jews, especially German and Austrian Jews, to see what was coming? Certainly not. Who could know, even in 1939, the extent of the murderous intentions of the Nazis and their allies? Who could believe that the filthy train carrying Dr. Pappenheim to the East was carrying him not to another arts festival, but to his doom? When I read Amos Elon's The Pity of It All: The History of the Jews in Germany, 1743-1933 I finally understood how deeply Jews were assimilated into German life, and therefore how natural it would have been for the denizens of Badenheim in 1939 to ignore the signs.

In light of recent events--you may fill in the blanks--I have had Yeats' great poem of cultural exhaustion very much in mind. You know the opening stanza well: 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity. 
It is ever so. The best do still lack all conviction, and the worst, alas, periodically redouble their passionate, and malicious, intensity. The irony of irony is that there is nothing more important to our survival than imaging a world we cannot imagine. Appelfeld's genius was to see clearly what most of us never see at all. He warned us. We should pay attention.

George Ovitt (5/2/15)