Sunday, May 21, 2006

Hashish and Illumination

I just read an interesting essay on Walter Benjamin that explores the possibility that drug experimentation illuminated Benjamin's thinking: "The missing link in Benjamin's work seems to have been supplied, at least in part, by the experience of rausch, the chemically induced trance state of intoxication."

One question immediately flashed through my mind: is this why I can't finish my paper on Steve Stern and Nathan Englander? Do I need hashish (I'm not really even sure what that is)?

Probably not, and if so I suppose I'm not destined to generate work on par with the brilliance of Benjamin, for whom "each sentence seems to bear almost scriptural weight, fitting for a man who conceived of a present 'shot through with splinters of messianic time.'"

This was something I didn't know about Benjamin, and it makes me wonder about others -- what about Blanchot and Derrida? Are their illuminations also elucidated by a special enhancer? I hate to think so...

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Colonizing Heaven

Recently, my friend Casey asked me to look at an essay by E.M Cioran called "A People of Solitaries." It's an essay about the Jewish people in which, as Susan Sontag suggests in the introduction to the book, he demonstrates a "startling moral insensitivity to the contemporary aspects of his themes." The interesting thing, is that I skimmed through a few of the other essays in the book and like what I see; Cioran's stuff is somewhat addictive.

But here are a few of the most shocking lines (and my commentary) from this particular essay:

"Is this people not the first to have colonized heaven, to have placed its God there?" Now, call me crazy, but it seems a little gross to suddenly characterize the Jews -- a group of people who have been persecuted from the beginning, and people who until very recently did not even have a homeland -- as colonizers of anything, let alone heaven. This is one of the most insensitive statements one could make, to characterize the Jews as imperialists of heaven. In fact, Judaism is one of the few religions that doesn't actively seek proselytes. They don't send out evangelists into all corners of the earth in search of converts. They don't force their religion, or way of life, on others the way that "colonizers" would. Regardless of Ciroan's intentions, I think this statement contributes to anti-Semitism in yet another way.

"The most intolerant and the most persecuted of peoples unites universalism with the strictest particularism." From what I can tell, this essay was published not too long after the Holocaust. How is it possible to, in the wake of such a disaster, conceive of the Jewish people as as intolerant as they are persecuted?

"Although chosen, the Jews were to gain no advantage by that privilege: neither peace nor salvation . . . Quite the contrary, it was imposed upon them as an ordeal, as a punishment. A chosen people without Grace. Thus their prayers have all the more merit in that they are addressed to a God without an alibi." This is one of the things in this essay that is worth thinking seriously about. I'm not sure what he means about their prayers having more merit, but the concept of the prayers being addressed to a a God who has no alibi is interesting, and hints of other discussions of the end of theodicy -- the end of trying to conceive of a God who is good. The end of trying to make excuses for God in the wake of the Holocaust. But later in the essay, it seems that Cioran is blaming the Jews for inventing a God who would turn his back on them.

There are other things I could write about here, but this is already getting too long. An interesting thing towards the end of this essay -- Cioran reveals his own ambivalent relationship to the Jews, describing how at one point he may have wished to be a Jew, and at another he loathed Jews.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Ghostwriter

I'm tired of writing my conference paper, and so Eliot Epstein is taking over. It's his fault if there's too much Slavoj Zizek in my paper and not enough Emmanuel Levinas. We've been going at it all night: aesthetics vs ethics. Note the insane look in Eliot's eyes, his crazy hair falling into his face.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Don't Look Back

Recently a girlfriend confided in me that she may be in love with two men at the same time for completely different reasons. She looked to me for advice, a reason to allow the scales to tip one way or another -- a way out of the erotic dilemma. I felt for her, and yet I also sensed something enviable in the way she allowed herself to experience the fullness of life in multiple directions, the way she allowed herself to be extended in different directions without breaking. I wanted to tell her she didn't have to choose, that she need only feel and that would be enough, all anyone could ask of her. Forget logic, dispose of boundaries, confound reason.

I then thought of one of my favorite essays of all time as a way to help her validate the complexity of her desires.

In Rebecca Goldstein's 1992 essay "Looking Back at Lot's Wife," (Commentary) the story of Lot's wife in Genesis is examined. Goldstein suggests that while Irit may have looked back though God told her not to, it was because of her love for her daughters who remained there. She suggests that God may have turned Lot's wife into salt as a way of forgiveness.

But that isn't what I wish to talk about right now.

Goldstein describes a poignant conversation with her father: "He thought it was right for human life to be subject to contradictions, for a person to love in more than one direction, and sometimes to be torn into pieces because of his many loves. I suspect he even felt a little sorry for any great man of ideas who had cut himself off, so consistently, from what my father saw as the fullness of human life."

The fullness of human life. To love in more than one direction. To embrace human complexity and uphold it as the greatest aspect of being, well, human. But reality tells me that this can't work. Yes, the lover who has extended him/herself in two directions may feel the pain of being torn into millions of pieces, but what about the two people who he/she loves? Aren't they also torn considerably, and in a way far less easier to piece back together? Doesn't it require that the lover deceive them at times in order to maintain the "love" or the relationship(s)? Doesn't the lover ultimately rob the the ones he/she loves of the capacity to love in the same way? It doesn't seem like a fair trade.

I want to tell my friend that her emotions are beautiful and complex and blameless. But that is the romantic side of me. The realistic side of me says that if such an instance of complexity is the fullness of life, then life is ultimately empty in so many other ways, and hurtful for the people who must share the lover's love.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Living in the City of God

I've been looking again at E.L. Doctorow's City of God tonight. Actually, I do that 3-4 nights each week since it's part of my dissertation. But tonight I wish that I lived in this book, literally -- that I lived in the City of God. But only so that I could physically step outside of it, close the door on this city of God. Walk away from it for good.

Naming Names

Some days I wish I could change my name. Today in particular I wish I could change my name, or perhaps that it was unknown to anyone but myself, like a secret name. A secret name that opened up the possibility of a life not hidden or purposely fragmented. A name that, like the self who I envision would bear the name, would fade in and out of the memories of others -- and only as I desired.

Although I have two very important conference papers to write -- my last two papers -- before the end of the month, I have convinced myself that the most important thing for me to do right now is to re-name myself. Re-imagine myself. Re-conceive of the possibilities of myself. And so the last hour or so has been devoted to thinking about names, and which one I should take. Naming the names, and what they mean. I can't help but think, though, that it would not be completely undesireable to be nameless, unnamable (it worked for a Beckett novel). I think that sometimes one's name obscures his or her face.

But names are private, so I can't explain why I'm putting them out there -- undoubtedly one of many competing sets of desires. Conflict. Always conflict. This is what I have so far.

1. Irit (Lot's wife): Because she looked back -- not necessarily in rebellion, but with defiant longing for her daughters who were left behind to burn.

2. Jael: Because she was shrewd enough to invite an evil man into her tent, to partake of her food and company, before driving a tent stake directly through his temples without flinching.

3. Billie: Because she is the only woman I know in the world who loves truly and unconditionally; because she is kind, selfless, and forgiving in ways that I am not.

4. Isha (or Eve): Because she carried the weight of the world on that one decision, that one twist toward opportunity that said simply, I can.

5. Rahel: Because she was buried on the side of a slightly traveled road, quickly; and because she used the idea of menstrual blood to purify her father's idols, knowing full well he would see them as tainted.

6. Becky (Sharp): Because she was shrewd, and she laughed and danced her way to the top of the world.

7. Cebelas: Because she was my grandmother, named by her father after a beautiful fountain in Italy; because she laughed loud and long; because she was taken from me before we could finish picking strawberries in her garden; and because I can't carry her inside of me anymore.

8. Orpah (Ruth's sister-in-law): Because everyone forgets about her; because she had the courage to return to her family and an old way of life. And for that, she is hidden from the text.

9. Lola: Because she was a showgirl.

10. Molly (Bloom): Because she said Yes at the end of a very long and painful journey; because she had the final word.

11. Dewey Dell: Because she was sexual; because she was alive.