Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Handshake

James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

W. H. Auden, "September 1, 1939"

Immanuel Wallerstein, Centrist Liberalism Triumphant


Since the French Revolution, as Immanuel Wallerstein demonstrates in volume IV of his history of the modern world system, the central ideological concern of the liberal classes--never mind  their party affiliation or nation--has been to silence voices of dissent from the left and to preclude significant democratic movements; to hold power by doling out token economic benefits to the working and disenfranchised classes; to push their nations into wars that underwrite a form of atavistic national unity, and to unleash the propaganda powers of the modern media in defense of the status quo. Stated this blandly, Wallerstein's vision of modernity looks a bit like crude Marxism or a paranoid delusion (some of his right-wing critics have thought as much), but the argument as a whole, supported by a lifetime of reading, is convincing. I demur on the point of working-class ineptitude; it was never that easy for the liberal classes to dupe the workers, as the history of labor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries demonstrates. State-sanctioned violence, rather than propaganda or economic carrots begrudgingly doled out (Ford's $5 daily wage) preserved power for the ruling classes, and if there were any genuine risk of working-class solidarity, then a pointless Great War would focus the minds of the masses, provide a smoke-screen for rounding up the radicals, and provide a tidy profit for the corporate sector as a bonus.

I bring up this bit of esoteric political history only to frame what I want to say about Pope Francis, the picture above, and a passage from one of my favorite poems--one worth rereading just now.

I confess to being deeply moved by that Jesuit hand bearing the ring of Peter, by the glimpse of white cassock and pellegrina, the pectoral cross, the fascia--medieval symbols of transcendent power, weighted with traditions of infallibility, celibacy (a man forever betrothed to God), and sanctity--grasping the outstretched hand of an inmate in Philadelphia's Curran-Fromhold prison. An honest and sad and achingly moving reaching across social roles and moral boundaries in a moment of simple humanity.

The history of liberalism found in Wallerstein's books is largely a history of fear--fear of the loss of authority, fear of the loss of the material prerogatives--deference, wealth, and permissible cruelty--that have accompanied worldly power since the first bully arose to be primus inter pares. The notion of freedom, so central to the liberal creed, could only be freedom for some and of only a very particular kind. An anonymous arm reaching (as I imagine it) through a cell door--an ironic symbol of the prisons built for us by a politics that has promised freedom and delivered, for most, only servitude.

Here's Auden, lines on the day the Second World War began:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

My students, with their unlined faces (so unlike Wystan's!), prefer the "realism" of Machiavelli and Hobbes to the "romantic notions" of Rousseau and Rawls. Maybe they're right. But there's still that handshake, a simple gesture made more powerful by the absence of faces: a man of God and a man perhaps not. If we can't love one another--and it appears we cannot--we can at least learn that ideas seem empty when in fact they are empty.

Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages...

"Ironic points of light." In his moving work The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James H. Cone quotes Emile Durkheim:  "The believer who has communicated with his god is not merely a man who sees new truths of which the unbeliever is ignorant; he is a person who is stronger. He feels within himself more force, either to endure the trials of existence, or to conquer them."

A little awkward, this sort of talk. Since religion has been co-opted by the resentful (does any Christian actually read the New Testament anymore?) it has become unfashionable to quote anything from Durkheim or even the bits of M.L. King that remind us he was a Baptist minister first and an activist second. But what Cone puts at the center of his theological book isn't God or the Cross--the very same one worn by Francis in that Philly jail--but the struggle for empowerment in a world that has been tidily arranged to convince us that we have no power, except maybe in our choice of smartphone and wardrobe. "In stupor." Yes, that feels right. And yet, there's that handshake--a gesture, but not only that: a reaching across a great divide of power and powerlessness.  Look at it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Sorry Scheme of Things

The Heart’s Desire by Nahid Rachlin

                                                             Ah, Love! Could thou and I with Fate conspire
                                                             To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
                                                             Would not we shatter to bits—and then
                                                             Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!

                                                                                    Omar Khayyám

The Iran-Iraq War lasted from September of 1980 to August of 1988, making it the longest conventional war of the 2oth Century. The death toll was staggering: more than a half a million Iranian and Iraqi soldiers were killed, and at least that many civilians, not to mention the millions of dollars in economic and structural damage incurred by both sides—and for what? Not only was there no winner in the war, and thereby no reparations, but there was no appreciable change in either the much-disputed national borders or the regional status quo. Yet the war was significant—gravely, even monstrously, so. In fact, of all the consequences of that bitter and miserable little war, arguably the most important, at least the most far-reaching in it implications, was the aggressive, nakedly mercenary role of the United States in staking its claim in the region. If you remember, long before we toppled Saddam Hussein in the name of Justice and Democracy, in the name of Women’s Rights and World Peace, he was one of our closest allies and friends. Indeed it is likely that he would never have attacked the newly minted Islamic Republic of Iran in the first place had it not been for his assurance of U.S. economic and military support, support only recently transferred to him and his megalomaniacal vision for the Middle East after the U.S.’s former henchman and regional toady, the Shah of Iran, was violently overthrown by his own people. While I risk of overstating the case, it is hard for me not to trace the bulk of the region’s current instability (the rise of Al Queda, the bombing of the World Trade Center, the U.S invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S invasion of Iraq, the rise of ISIS, the Syrian Civil War, and the desperate flight of Syrian refugees) to this, this iniquitous and barefaced ploy.

Nahid Rachlin’s novel, The Heart’s Desire, is set in Iran, in Teheran, immediately following the Iran-Iraq war when the country lies in ruins, the people are despondent, and anti-American sentiment runs high. 

everything in Iran  was touched by the tragedy of the prolonged eight-year war between Iran and its neighbor Iraq, which had ended only months ago. Though the fighting had gone on mainly around the western border, bombs had left their marks everywhere—you couldn’t miss the charred window frames and boarded-up doors, the families camping in quiet backstreets, soldiers passing by on crutches. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians, many of them mere teenage boys…had been killed and wounded in the war. Black flags hanging on almost every door designated that someone in the household had been martyred. On the main square was a fountain with dark red water surging up from it.

Filtered principally through the life and intelligence of an American woman, Jennifer Sahary, who has traveled to the newly opened Iran with her Iranian husband and their young son to visit his family and friends, as well as to give her husband the chance to take stock of himself in own beleaguered land. While partly the story of her husband’s struggles to come to terms with his guilt and longing for having left his homeland for a life in the United States, the novel is first and foremost about Jennifer’s own disillusionment as an American about Iran, about the husband she loves, and about the deep-seeded differences that divide them.      

Nahid Rachlin is an Iranian-American who had written numerous works of fiction and non-fiction, including Crowd of Sorrows, Foreigner: A Novel, Veils: Short Stories, Married To a Stranger, Jumping over Fire, and Persian Girls: A Memoir.

Peter Adam Nash

Monday, September 14, 2015

Ghost Writers and New Lives

Summer in Baden-Baden, Leonid Tsypkin

Vita Nuova, Dante Alighieri 

Like many other readers, I enjoy novels about writers--Flaubert's Parrot comes to mind, as well as Philip Roth's Ghost Writer--and also non-fiction works that take as their subject not the quotidian lives of those who scribble but the ineffable magic of making art from language: Olivia Laing's The Trip to Echo Springs: On Writers and Drinking is one such, as is Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence. Sarah Bakewell's How to Live is not so much a life of Montaigne as an exploration of his ideas; Sebald writes about Stendhal in a similarly oblique way in Vertigo, and Jay Parini's Benjamin's Crossing is about the last days of Walter Benjamin and is rich in psychological detail (ditto Parini's The Last Station). And then there are the books that aren't directly about writers but about the authors of the books as they reflect on the lives of authors--a little meta- I admit, but a brilliant form of literary expression if you can pull it off. Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life and Nicholson Baker's U and I are examples, as is Tsypkin's wonderful Summer in Baden-Baden, a novel about both Tsypkin and the Dostoevskys (Fyodor and Anna Grigoryevna). Tsypkin has used the Master's sojourn in Germany--his gambling, his tempestuous relations with his wife, his obsession with and revulsion toward literature--as a mirror reflecting his own life and, in particular, his journey to Petersburg that culminates in a visit to the house in which Dostoevsky died. The novel doesn't move from one story to another, from Baden-Baden to Petersburg, but folds two narratives into one another--Tsypkin's life as a dissident within the USSR overlaps and embraces Dostoyevsky's exile in Germany, an exile that is as much spiritual as physical. The brilliance of the novel lies in its seamless entangling of two literary lives, in Tsypkin's reprising the life of the Master as if it were a facet of his own. Joseph Frank's great biography of Dostoevsky (I've read only the one-volume abridgment) makes plain enough the pain out of which Dostoevsky fashioned his art--his time in the house of the dead, his epilepsy, his addictions--to writing and gambling, or perhaps to writing as gambling--his ambivalent passion for Anna Grigoryevna, his self-imposed exile. What Tsypkin does admirably is to reassemble in coherent fashion the fragments of Dostoevsky's outer and inner lives in such a way as to make his genius seem a function of his biography rather than a triumph over it.

It occurred to me a few months ago that I had better get started on my long-postponed project of rereading those books that have meant the most to me--not all of them classics, but each one significant in marking out a period of my life, or, if that's too grandiose, then let's leave it at this: books I've carried with me through a lifetime of being the sort of person who carries around books and throws away everything else. Carried them because I meant to read them again "someday." And, at last, "someday" has arrived. For no special reason I've started this project with Dante's beautiful Vita Nuova--a hymn to his muse Beatrice Portinari and to the making of poems--and C.S. Lewis's The Discarded Image, one of the half-dozen works of literary criticism that isn't a chore to read and which is a perfect companion to Dante. Lewis's book teaches us how to read medieval and Renaissance poets; Dante teaches us how to read Dante--or perhaps how to misread him.  I reread my 1973 Mark Musa edition, with its no-nonsense literal versions both of the canzoni and the prose excursuses through which Dante not only prepares us with scanty biographical tidbits for his poems, but in which he explains, as a coy philosopher might, the progress of his Platonic-Christian love for the maiden Beatrice, on whom he laid eyes (if at all) exactly three times, and yet "she seemed to be the daughter not of a mortal but of a god,"as Dante describes her, reworking Homer. It was Boccaccio who identified the married (to one of the banking Bardis, according to my old guidebook to Florence's churches) Beatrice with Dante's sacred muse, his companion from Purgatory to Paradise, and the inspiration for his "book of memory," as Dante called the Vita Nuova. Thoroughly "medieval," that is, rooted in the neo-Platonic and Augustinian epistemology of the fourteenth century, Dante's love poems in the VN surely remind one of Symposium, with its yearning for erotic transcendence, but also of the medieval romans (of Chretien de Troyes) or, more intimately, of the Lais of Marie de France. But Dante is an original, and no comparison can do justice to the richness of his imagery, his mastery of the rhetorical tropes that defined late medieval poetry, or the alternating repression/confinement and overflowing of his emotions.

The first time Dante is addressed by Beatrice he nearly swoons. He records the event in detail: "It was precisely the ninth hour of that day, three o'clock in the afternoon, when her sweet voice came to me. Since this was the first time her words had ever been directed to me, I became so ecstatic that, like a drunken man, I turned away from everyone and sought the loneliness of my room, where I began thinking of this most gracious lady, and, thinking of her, I fell into a sweet sleep, and a marvelous vision appeared to me."

This is conventional. Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, allegedly written while its author was in prison, awaiting execution, also falls into a dream, but his "Lady" isn't a teenage beauty but Philosophy/Wisdom herself, summoned to bolster Boethius's justifiably waning faith in God's sense of fair play.  (Still the best book on the theodicy question btw).

Dante, who has only just now "taught himself the art of writing poetry"--as if!--sets out to write a sonnet for his lady, the first of thirty-two sonnets, canzoni, and a single ballad that make up the poetic matter of the Vita Nuova. The first sonnet has always been one of my favorites, especially the arresting image of stanza two:

Joyous, Love seemed to me, holding my heart
within his hand, and in his arms he had
my lady, loosely wrapped in folds, asleep.
He woke her then, and gently fed to her
the burning heart; she ate it, terrified.
And then I saw him disappear in tears.

[Poi la svegliava, e d'esto core ardendo
lei paventosa umilmente pascea. 
Appresso gir lo ne vedea piangendo.]

"Ardent," is right, but "burning" is better; and she ate his heart, not in terror, but with humility (umilmente pascea) as if, let's face it, she were eating sacramental bread and wine. In his gloss Dante mentions how the meaning of this poem was not clear to anyone at first, but is now clear even to the unlearned. The Vita Nuova isn't only about a rebirth in love, but about death--including, in the final sections, the death and transfiguration of Beatrice. This Beatrice, real or no, turned out to be a gold mine for Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite painters and poets--swirling clouds of dust and soul-stuff, eternal love, chaste longing. Gustave Dore does a fine job of capturing the overwrought frenzy of pure love, in the same vein as Bernini's St. Theresa.

"After I wrote this sonnet there came to me a miraculous vision in which I saw things that made me resolve to say no more about this blessed one until I would be capable of writing about her in a nobler way."

Poems and glosses, prayer and prophecy.

George Ovitt (9/14/15)

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

“Soul Swallower”

Götz and Meyer by David Albahari

How Götz, or was it Meyer, loved children!

The photograph above features one of the converted buses that the Nazis used in their initial  experiments in the large-scale asphyxiation of prisoners, of Ukrainians, Poles, and Russians, mostly of the handicapped and Jews. As carbon monoxide canisters quickly proved too expensive for the job, the developers soon settled upon a simpler, more cost-effective method, requiring only that bus driver get out of the tightly sealed cab and reconnect the exhaust hose to a special outlet in the bottom of the bus. After about 15-20 minutes of idle driving about the countryside all of the prisoners would be dead. Not long thereafter, such jury-rigged buses were replaced by custom manufactured vans, the compact Diamond and Opelblitz, as well as the 5-ton Saurer, the most efficient of them all.   

It is a 5-ton Saurer that looms at the heart of this spare, if devastating novel by the Jewish Serbian writer, David Albahari. Based on an actual Saurer van that operated in and around the city of Belgrade during WWII, a van in which—so the narrator discovers—many of his relatives had perished. Through his research he learns in addition that the drivers of this van were two young men, two actual SS non-commissioned officers, identified plainly in the records as “Wilhelm Götz” and “Erwin Meyer”:

I never saw them, Götz and Meyer, so I can only imagine them. My interest in the two of them came at a time when I was trying to fill in the empty slots in my family tree. I had just turned fifty, I knew where I was going with my life, so that all that was left was to figure out where I came from. I went round the archives, visited museums, brought books home from the library. That is how Götz and Meyer came into my life.

What ensues in the novel is the narrator’s determined, finally desperate attempt to imagine these two men, to slip into their minds, their skins, to understand—as so many have sought to understand—what Hannah Arendt famously called, “the banality of evil,” the fact that such cruelty and violence, as was perpetrated by the Nazis, was less the product of a handful of psychotic, diabolical freaks (whom we could safely dismiss as aberrational) than the logical, rational, even inexorable outcome of an abiding ideological faith, a cultural, national creed embraced and embodied, not by monsters, but by average, often expressly “normal” men. Writes Albahari, the two young officers were altogether indifferent as killers, with no apparent stake in the matter at all:

Once you become a part of the mechanism, you assume the same responsibility as every other part. Götz and Meyer didn’t know about that. The truck was theirs to drive, and they drove, always smiling, even when the wind blew dust in their faces, and they couldn’t care less what was going on in the back, whether the load was Jews or sugar beets.

Führerprinzip, the foundation of political authority upon which the Third Reich was based, consisted essentially of the simple, incontestable belief that Hitler’s word was law. Everything followed from that. It was a principle to which Hitler’s chief henchman, SS-Obergruppenführer, Adolph Eichmann, made frequent reference during his trial in Jerusalem when defending himself and his comrades against the charges of genocide and mass murder, insisting, as he had, that they had only been “following orders.” While by now an argument that has been thoroughly discredited, and while Arendt’s assessment of Eichmann himself as “banal” has been shaken to its core, and while some violence and cruelty is indeed aberrational, the central mystery of this novel remains: How does one explain the methodical, bureaucratic murder of six million Jews?

David Albahari is a Serbian writer of Sephardic Jewish origin. He lives in Canada. Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać, Götz and Meyer is published by Dalkey Archive.

Peter Adam Nash