Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Dropping the H(olocaust)-Bomb: The Ethics of Post-9/11 Comedy

I'm giving a talk called "Dropping the H(olocaust)-Bomb: The Ethics of Post-9/11 Comedy" tomorrow night at a BINA salon. Somehow I've managed to transition from midrash to comedy, but the Holocaust is still present.

UPDATE: You can watch the talk here.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Reading for the Wound

Last year at this time (Rosh Hashanah) I wrote about the sweetness of a new year. I believed that happiness must be inevitable for us all because there was possibility, coming in the form of a calendar yet unblemished. I imagined that the hope conjured up by those without hope was something to which I too could aspire.

I knew it was going to be a sweet year. And it was. But sometimes sweetness becomes suddenly like sand in our mouths.

I traveled from Los Angeles to Boston only recently. For many months now I have prepared myself for potential airport trouble because I refuse to pass through the body scanner and I refuse to submit to the pat down. I have legitimate reasons why I refuse to do so--many of which will be discussed in various entries on this blog over the next month or so. But until this trip I was always given the "option" of going through a metal detector as opposed to the more recent intrusive methods (well, to be honest, I always scope out the line--and there's always one--that doesn't have the body scanner). But this time it wasn't an option: every line had a body scanner.

My travel companion and I both knew that we might not be able to fly, but we had agreed to stand our ground. We were polite, articulate, and compassionate in our refusals, but we were also adamant. The details will be discussed in a future blogpost, but our standoff involved every possible "supervisor" at the airport as well as multiple members of the LAPD. We did fly that night, but with only a few small victories. I was ultimately "forced" to submit to an intrusive pat down.

I was devastated and ashamed of myself--mostly because I knew that I could have let them arrest me rather than capitulate. They only forced me because I allowed them to. I am disappointed that I did not, finally, sit down on the ground and refuse to leave the premises and allow the police officers to, reluctantly, arrest me.

At the end of my trip, as I began the security screening process once again in Boston, I was met with much more hostility and cruelty (in LA, for example, the TSA employees were--with the exception of one man--somewhat understanding and respectful even if they lacked the capacity to articulate themselves; the LAPD officers were surprisingly kind--more articulate and intelligent than the TSA staff). The TSA employees at the Boston airport were inhuman (the men, that is; the women were fairly average in attitude)--some of the most hateful individuals I have ever encountered. Something about sneering, hateful men in uniforms chills me.

But I am equally disturbed by the mass apathy that flanked me on both sides in the form of travelers mindlessly walking through the body scanner and assuming the position. Why? Because someone in a uniform told them to do it. I saw as others watched, horrified, the way the Boston TSA treated us. They were scared.

I have been deeply disturbed for days now. No number of apples dipped in exotic honey can sweeten my disposition. And there is a sense of foreboding for this year to come. But I am also more deeply aware--of exactly what, I am not ready to articulate. But it is an awareness nonetheless.

Responsibility begins with awareness. And I have become aware. I am now responsible for this awareness. It holds me hostage.

And yet I don't know exactly what is my responsibility--to myself, to my community and country, to God. I also know that I experienced something else--something painful. I don't, however, know what it is. And so I've come running back to books and theories and ideas, looking for an answer to what it is I'm experiencing--what can only be described as an existential trauma of sorts. And so, like always, I read for the wound.* But this time I feel it inside of me.

I have yet to find answers to what it is I feel, what it is I want to say, to scream. My first thought was to read Enrique Dussel (yes, this whole thing must be about the philosophy of liberation!). Then Agamben--because of course the space occupied by the TSA is a kind of "state of exception." (I'm not convinced it's not, actually.) And then of course I come back to Levinas, where I feel comfortable. It doesn't give me answers, but it reminds me to ask the right questions, namely: what is my responsibility here?

Maybe I need to get angrier. One of my favorite writers, Alicia Ostriker, has said (with regard to women in the context of the Hebrew bible): "We are not yet angry enough."

I know that I will not be able to forget these incidents or the larger issue of citizens being forced to undergo invasive screening procedures and being treated like animals when they politely question the need for it or request an alternative. And yet, all I can do right now is look for the right questions, continue to read for the wound.

*The phrase "read for the wound" is borrowed from Geoffrey Hartman.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Nothing De-Scribed

The disaster . . . it is the limit of writing.

Only now, in the earliest hours of September 12, 2011, do I venture to write anything. The day before seemed to me little more than the culmination of our collective desire to write something, anything--to pretend to remember, to commemorate. How can we remember what we don't know?

Anyone who fancies himself a writer of any kind had been thinking about what he would write, what he would say, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. We filled the empty space with the appearance of mourning, but what we call mourning is perhaps nothing more than self-therapy in drag.

We want to tell our stories. We want to remember our selves: where we were when we heard the news of the disaster. We want to identify the remains of our egos in the rubble. But the truth is that we've forgotten what we've never known. Our knowledge, our memories, are mutilated.

I'm not saying it's wrong. But I didn't want to be a part of this.

This must be repeated: the disaster de-scribes.

I didn't want to be a part of this, and so I thought of nothing. Nothing until now. And yet now I find that it is even impossible to think of nothing. We emerge into this world from nothing, and it is the return to nothing that we fear with a fear so deep that we disable our capacity to conceive of it. It terrifies us with its lack of clutter and chaos. Absence, silence, emptiness: they remind us of our origins, of the place from which we come and the future that quietly threatens us.

I reject coherence, here and now, in a vain attempt to write the de-scribing of disaster.

Like the surface tension in a cup of silence, trembling.

I read something earlier today, on a blog, about how we are perhaps only in the latent stage of trauma--we have not yet borne witness to the events of 9/11. When we do, the stories will cease for just a little while in favor of silence.

We do believe that we want to know everything about the collective trauma, though. It's kind of like the time when Moses said to G-d: "Show me your face!" He saw, instead, the back of G-d. The story is that it would've been too much for Moses to bear had G-d revealed his face. I always wonder if Moses was underestimated. And on other days I wonder alternatively if he, Moses, was traumatized, and whether he found comfort in deception ("No, no, I never saw His face.")

And weeds grow in my mouth.

I'm only talking about things I don't know. Doesn't it feel gross to use our own words on occasions such as these? I just thought of the end of a poem by Norman Finkelstein:

Now among more twisted paths,
where each new archetype proves less adequate than the last,
I move forward in mourning,
proceed looking backward, mumbling a kaddish for the myth of the resurrection,
the unruly corpse we cannot put to rest.

Not everything will live again. Everything need not be rebuilt, even if the re-building happens only through narrative. And yet I still cherish these stories, if only because of how they illuminate our amnesia.

* Italics are quotations from Maurice Blanchot, Alicia Ostriker, and Yehuda Amichai respectively.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Hitler and Humor

I've reviewed Rudolph Herzog's book Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler's Germany over at The New Republic. Read it here.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Love and Other Origins

I was reading someone's life just the other day, and I found myself lingering in the most melancholy of moments. The moments of sorrow--both real and imagined--harbored the sharpest insights. They caused the woman to come alive. She was unequivocally her in these dark flashes.

I tried not to listen too carefully, but I heard her tell the man by whom she felt betrayed: "These tears are not for you, not really. They are for all the betrayals and sadnesses that have come before you, the ones that have lodged themselves deep inside of me. You are just the smallest flicker at the end of a long line of disappointments. You haven't really hurt me. You have simply reminded me." He had become a trace.

And I thought of things, as I do. I thought of the impossibility of separating one thing from another, one sorrow from the next. Everything, even our emotional responses, functions midrashically, one sorrow an extension of another, never discrete from its dark predecessor. Each sorrow is enriched by the next. We are always reminded of origins.

I suspect we often become emotionally involved with people who represent our origins, who return us to the self. Love and loving are rarely distinct from a certain degree of narcissism.

A year or so ago I wrote about a poem I had discovered, by Cheryl Dumesnil. The poem was prefaced by a Rumi quotation:
"Lovers don't finally meet somewhere. They're in each other all along." Love, then, at least in this regard, is about the act of recognition, of responding to something we already know and allowing that knowledge--that understanding--to be deepened and enriched.

There are at least two ways to spin this. I can call it beautiful--that is, I can see in it what I want (or should want) to discover, which is something lovely and promising. Or I can despise one's selfish impulse to claim to have found love when really one has found another version of herself to idolize.

I suppose it's the aspect of "need" that I find especially distressing. To love another human being because he has been in me "all along," as Rumi suggests, might simply be another form of self love, a manner of fulfilling a need. For this reason it has always chilled me to hear a man say that he needs me. I know that Levinas says something, somewhere, about how love ceases to be when one person "needs" another.

Love without need, however, may not exist, not even between lovers.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Two Ways of Splitting Fish

When a tradition is in good order, it is always partially constituted by an argument about the goods the pursuit of which gives to that tradition its particular point and purpose. --Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue.

On the first night of Shavuot this week, I went to a synagogue in my neighborhood to hear Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo give a talk called "The Unfrozen Torah: Rethinking Halacha and Religious Beliefs." I was more than surprised--given that I was in a Modern Orthodox shul--when he opened his lecture by asking if anyone was familiar with Walker Percy. Inside I was nodding vigorously, excited by what would likely be the most tangential nod to the American literary world, but outwardly I remained immovable, having sensed that nobody around me was expressing familiarity with the 20th-century American Southern writer--the very existentialist and Christian writer, Walker Percy.

Cardozo went on to contextualize his entire talk in an analogy drawn by Percy in one of his works. One group of boys--presumably in some kind of lab or medical school--is told to cut into a fish, to split it open and see what they find. But they are also, in the spirit of education, told exactly what they will find. And so they find, of course, nothing new.

Another group of boys gathers together at the end of a dock. They split open the body of a dead fish, not having been told to do it, but acting merely on impulse. Curiosity. A desire to know. They find an entire world. They discover it for themselves.

Both groups of boys split open the same fish, so to speak. They find, for the most part, the same biological phenomena. And yet, the ways they tell the story must surely differ. The boys in the lab acquire data that was set in stone before they even considered picking up the knife to split the fish in two. They are not so readily apt to ask the questions that might lead to the discovery of new information. But the boys on the dock do not have the luxury of benefitting from the precision and propriety of data tested and true. They also are at a disadvantage, it would seem.

And yet, their eyes behold the same vision: the once living body, rent in two, turned inside out to prove its former capacity to breathe.

But the boys' meaning-making and knowledge-acquiring processes are vastly different. And here is the crux of Cardozo's argument. If there's anything that Judaism teaches us, it's that process takes precedence over product. The parts that move are more significant than the parts that stop, that stop us. But more importantly, at least for Cardozo, we need both processes. Judaism, as it were, recognizes and allows for the possibility of various processes--different ways of doing things--and so Jews must recognize not just the value but also the necessity of these varying routes.

There is a certain recklessness, perhaps, that characterizes the impulses of the boys on the dock. They are tempted. Here lies this body before you. Cut into it. Peer into it. Method is replaced by mayhem.

The boys in the lab, on the other hand, recognize and respect the intellectual and scientific work that precedes them. One mustn't go cutting recklessly into fish. Ingenuity is replaced by insight of another. These boys may miss what's new.

Cardozo's second point drew on the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre (see the quote at the top of this post). We argue about what's good, and we are good. We are constantly in a process of becoming. Of becoming good. Some things should not be written in stone or we undo everything that makes them good, worth writing down. Codification reflects our ossification. Some things need to be felt, learned, struggled through. I will not let you go until you bless me, Jacob said.

Yes, there's nothing new under the sun, says the writer of Ecclesiastes. But turn it and turn it, the sages say. This is how we move.

(Image above by Jeanette Jobson)

Friday, May 27, 2011

Show Me Your Face

I taught Ehud Havazelet's Bearing the Body this week in my Holocaust Film and Literature course. And, like last time I taught the novel, I'm compelled to write about it. When I put this course together I knew that I would have to address the perspective of what we call the Second Generation survivor--the child of a Holocaust survivor, exposed to the terrible trauma by proxy, everything secondhand. A life spent filling in the gaps in an attempt to know the elusive parent, the formidable and perpetually unknowable. Havazelet is not a child of survivors, but he has written an incredible novel that speaks to this experience.

I have to admit that over the last few years I have been turned off by the Second Generation racket--people forging their identities and making their careers based on their status as children of survivors. As the last generation of living Holocaust survivors shrinks smaller, many of their children rise in stature, conceiving of themselves as the only repositories of the authentic story of the Holocaust. They forget that not even their parents can claim that status--that that story died with the drowned, as Primo Levi and Giorgio Agamben will both attest.

Those children of survivors who write novels--their work is so often comprised of one long metaphorical scream. They make compelling cases for their entitlement, urge us to deify them with the passing of their parents. The story is ours, and ours alone, Melvin Jules Bukiet, a child of survivors, has said.

But it is not. He's wrong. It belongs to no one, perhaps. And, anyway, since when did it become fashionable to preside over narratives, claim ownership over them? It certainly isn't a Jewish impulse--to own narratives. Yes, Jews love stories. But the existence of Midrash--stories that provide commentary on biblical narratives, showing us the inadequacies of the original stories, deepening them, filling them out, and extending them in a way that ensures their relevance to a contemporary era--illuminates the Jewish capacity to own narratives while simultaneously relinquishing our right to them. We would rather see them grow, take shape, become relevant in the context of now.

And yet I don't quite despise the tendency of some of the more artistically and intellectually visible Second Generation Survivors to act out, imagining themselves in cattle cars they never saw, pretending the flesh of their arms is tattooed. Let me know what you know; show me your face. This is what they are essentially saying to their parents. Let me know what you know so that you can love me, and I can love you. Let me see your face.

The face on which was written "Thou shalt not kill." The face unread. The face that remains, painfully and necessarily, hidden.

I, in part, understand this impulse. The experience of feeling known by someone, inside and out, is exhilarating. I have often been loved, but rarely known.

My father was in the Vietnam War. In fact, he was part of some of the most gruesome battles of that war. He was wounded and nearly killed. His body bears incredible scars, but these scars break away from the body under the weight of the emotional burden. This quarter, as I taught about the transmission of trauma, I couldn't help but think of the similarities between children of Holocaust survivors and children of people traumatized by other events. No, it's not the same thing, but there's something...

I will never know my father. As much as I love and adore him, and as much as he loves, protects, and adores me, I will never know him. He lives within the trauma, though his body exists outside of its chronological grasp. The inside continuous with the outside. My father, the Mobius: no lines to distinguish beginnings from endings.

These histories that don't belong to us--they haunt us in the beginning, but become ash in our mouths before the day is done. He is caught. And it is not for me to save him or try to identify with him. I only bear witness, carry traces. I, daily, bear and bury the remnants of his strife, the relics of his trauma. And I realize, today, that if I am sad, if I embrace the sadness of life, it is because I want to share in his sorrow. I want to know.

And so it is with the issue of children of survivors. It is not for me to decide whether their position is right or wrong, ethical or unethical. It's not for me to levy judgments against their shortcomings, their flailing about in a desperate attempt to know. All I can do is bear witness.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Intimacy of Language

A shameful confession: I have carried on a long-time love affair with all things of the Hebrew persuasion without really knowing the language. A page of Talmud is beautiful to me--mysterious, compelling, intriguing. And it speaks to me. Or, at least, my translations and transliterations speak to me, read Talmud to me. Perhaps that space between the original and the translation also speaks to me, as ellipses often do.

But I've recently been learning Hebrew, thanks to someone special who gave me a gift of Hebrew classes at a local language institute, and I can't deny that I feel a new brand of intimacy when I look at a siddur in shul, or when I look at a page of untranslated David Grossman--as I feel my lips form knowingly around the sounds that become real words. Even if I don't yet know what all the words mean, I can start to read them. And it's a breathtaking intimacy that materializes even as one is in the beginnings of being able to recognize the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and breathe sounds into them.

Last week in shul, maybe for the first time ever, I did not choose the transliterated siddur. There's something about the sound of the language's voice that is emotionally evocative. It brings us back to the foundation of the world--to its chaos and creation. But especially to its chaos.

Creation is violent. God's words form a rupture that separates light from darkness, cutting them off from one another, putting enmity between them. And the world is all wild and waste. But this violence springs from language, which is, for me, the root of intimacy. Conflict, again. It's an intimate kind of violence, this linguistic rupture that births creation.

And isn't that what our words always do? They are violent because they are self-serving, often cutting us off from others despite the illusion of dialogue. The sharing and exchange of ideas is its own reward, striking with brilliant intensity. It allows us to experience intimate moments with ourselves.

But I don't think this is true for most people.

Language, for most people, serves a utilitarian purpose; it is a means to an end. One man writes a clever business proposal, hoping that potential investors will finance his project and so advance his lot in life. One woman writes a catchy screenplay, hoping to see her ideas materialize on theater screens across the country.

And then there are those who are immodest in the way they stand naked before mere words, eagerly awaiting the electrical charge of idea and intellect to come barreling into human desire.

I don't imagine that my love for language, for the sake of language, will be financially lucrative. But it's enough. It's enough.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Jews and Writers: On Impossibility

We often want something. And more often, at least for some of us, we savor the sensation of wanting detached from knowing. In other words--we want something, but we don't know what.

On these occasions there are two writers to whom I turn: Edmond Jabes and Rainer Maria Rilke. Every once in a while it will be something or someone else, but most often it's one of these two. I pull out a book and just open it randomly.

Tonight, Edmond Jabes's The Book of Questions is what I open. I see:

Faced with the impossibility of writing, which paralyzes every writer, and the impossibility of being Jewish, which has for two thousand years racked the people of that name, the writer chooses to write, and the Jew to survive. (223)

In both instances, it is impossibility that is chosen. We select the impossible, the "thou must, which takes no account of the thou can," to use Martin Buber's words. We chafe against what is not yet ours, but in the struggle it becomes, somehow, ours. Yes, it is perhaps discernible only in the struggle.

It's akin to the Maurice Blanchot quotation I opened my rhetoric class with last semester: You can only become a writer, you can never be one; no sooner are you, then you are, no longer, a writer."

It's only about process; abandon notions of product and myths of finality. Just keep moving. It should, in theory, give us great cause for anxiety--what with the assurance that we will never achieve what we set out to. And yet, we are liberated.

Don't be reluctant to struggle, is what it makes me think. And don't be fearful of agonizing over the friction. Fear, instead, the day you arrive or achieve.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ethics and the Tragic Face of Literature in a Post-9/11 World

Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative. –Don DeLillo, Mao II

In between various other projects--finishing my book manuscript, finishing a Woody Allen article, prepping for my German cinema course, creating my new voice over career (Oh, come on--those of you who know me, know how fond I am of incorporating strange voices into every narrative I tell.)--I've started a new project that I'm really excited about.

It's not a form of procrastination. I had to start it because I was thinking through the possibilities for my presentation at the 2011 North American Levinas Society conference in May, trying to write a proposal. I had just finished reading Don DeLillo's Mao II, and was blown away (I know, I'm a bit late on this one.). And it came to me that everything these days--literature, daily conversations, political rhetoric--is either about destruction and violence or it employs violent rhetoric. I just saw an article online today, for example, about how political rhetoric in particular is charged with violent language (political opponents are "demolished," a bill is "killed," "crash and burn," etc.).

But what I really care about is literature--how it looks and feels, what role it plays in our efforts to come to terms with the world around us.

What, I began to wonder, is the new “face” of literature? In an era dominated by senseless brutalities, collective atrocities, and threats of terrorism, how has the face of literature changed both to reflect and respond to these phenomena?

This isn't so different from my book project, which examines the role of non-representational thinking in the context of responses (literary and film) to the Holocaust. But something in the past decade has changed. In a post-9/11 period, it seems that American novelists have begun to forge a path into new ethical terrain. While it may be that the pervasiveness of discussions of violence and terror since 9/11 have colored all of our discourse--social, political, philosophical, religious, etc.--it also might be that the catastrophes of 9/11 gave novelists a new language—a rhetoric through which to address the question of the ethical in our era.

DeLillo’s Mao II in particular highlights the writer’s own anxieties about the place of the artist/novelist in a world dominated by the spectacles of terrorism. “What terrorists gain, novelists lose,” says one character in Mao II. “The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous.”

And, later on, “the more clearly we see terror, the less impact we feel from art” (157).

Hmph. Art vs Terror? What?

So my question, then, is what role do terror and terrorism play in navigating what we might call the new ethical terrain, particularly as it is mapped out in the space of the literary? How can an understanding of the Levinasian “face” open up the kind of discourse necessary (the “discourse whose first word is obligation”) for an understanding of the ethical in the context of the literary (Totality and Infinity 201)? But more importantly, why is such an understanding important, and how might it spur us on to action?

This is what I'm thinking about. I'm really excited.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Awake Inside the Dark

Awake inside the dark...

This is how the verse begins--the second verse of one of my favorite songs (video below).

Yes, and sometimes I do. Just the other night I awoke in the middle of the dark. Something was pulling me down to the center of something. My head, leaning off one side of the bed, felt a magnet's warmth.

I saw a deep pool of blood, my fingers just barely missing it, but tracing its shape.

I did what one does: I breathed out and it was a scream, echoing against the shaking of my body--I, pinned flat to the bed by someone who understood what I was seeing, not seeing. The kind of scream that says I'm as close to horror as I might get in this world. Because it's first the horror of the unknown, tainted with blood and fear of death and trauma--and then we realize that we have come into contact with remnants of the known.

I get these nighttime bouts frequently.

And so just the other night...I wandered around until the first bit of daylight, so that I would not awake in the dark.

So much of my work--even this blog--is anchored by my reading of Maurice Blanchot, particularly his idea that it is darkness that illuminates more brilliantly than light. And one of my Facebook friends today quoted a phrase from a 1968 sermon given by Dr. King: "Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars."

It's when we think we cannot see that our pupils are dilated. We suspend our disbelief not only when we want to imagine, but also, unwittingly, when we want to see. But what are we to do when the darkness reveals madness and horror? What are we to do when the reality of what we find in the darkness differs drastically from the reality of our daily existence. What I mean is this: I know that there was not, that night when I awoke in the dark, a pool of blood on the floor, but I saw it when I was awake, and this experience is incompatible with the life I live during daylight.

And yet it is no less real. It is likely the real more real than real.

Perhaps these near brushes with death and the horror of infinite absence give us a special kind of sight. Think of Abraham, after the binding of his son Isaac--he called the site of the trauma Moriah, a place of vision or seeing.

But what does it mean to see, even when the object of our sight is illuminated by darkness? I suspect I am not supposed to want to merge my two realities: the one I experience in the dark, and the one I walk around in when it is light. But I can't help but see the interplay between the two, and I suspect that my dark reality cannot but come to bear on its counterpart.

LimmudLA 2011 Conference

It's time to register for the 2011 LimmudLA Conference in February. Love this event. You'll never be the same.