Thursday, December 27, 2012

My Take On Django Unchained

FWIIW: Here is my amateur's take on Django Unchained, being a reworked expansion of a comment I made yesterday to a FB friend right on seeing it.

...Some say Django Unchained is fantastic. I'll say it has some of that in it in the sense of containing the fantastical.

I agree with the presence in it of many good things people see in the movie including:  it's very funny; it's a great epic story; it makes loving, funny use of exploitative B genres; it's got vital, wonderful acting; it's long but not overly  long, the length giving it an epic quality; it exacts cinematic revenge on the the treatment of blacks throughout cinema; it in effect makes Clint Eastwood over into Jamie Foxx; it has racial catharsis of a kind; the dialogue crackles; for cineasts, I'm not one, it's loaded with nods to, homages to, and echoes of, iconic cinema; it's extremely self conscious; it lets the righteous emerge victorious and sends the racist villains to bloody, fiery hell; generally, it buzzes with  energy and is irrepressibly, irreverently  entertaining-irreverence multiplied by itself.

It just so happened that the morning of the day I saw Django Unchained I heard a NPR rebroadcast of an hour long interview with Toni Morrison--who my eldest daughter did her Honour's English graduating essay on, and whose writing and novels I don't much like for their stiff prose, humourlessness, irony deficiency and unrelenting somber seriousness. Correctness multiplied by itself.Tarantino is quite the opposite in his manic playfulness, his radical irreverence, his in-your-face incorrectness--at times, it seems, just for its own sake, his refusal to let any seriousness take any dominant role.

Maybe Tarantino and Morrison are bookends of a spectrum that might want Morrison, for example, to lighten up some and not be so in love with her own heaviness and might want, for example, Tarantino to heavy up some and not seek to wink at, and send up, most of what he touches. (There is some of that Morrisonian heaviness in Spielberg too, which bothers Lincoln a little, but he's such an alive  film maker compared to her lifelessness as a fiction writer that Lincoln is just too good to be reduced to a joyless artistic fate.)

And that's my problem with Django Unchained, for however much I enjoyed it, which was a lot, a lot, up to a point. I try to think of what I ultimately get or take from the movie; I look for its moral vision, its unflinching representation of the terrible history it reprises and means to present in a stark and original way. I get and take away instead, ultimately, the fantastical exploding the serious--the ludicrous shoot outs and explosions at the end, for example--replete with ironic winking at everything,  which buffer the horrors Tarantino wants to portray and his audience, in a new way in film, to take into itself. Tarantino destroys any meat of seriousness by slathering it with his barbecue sauce of winking and joking and slick, easy, glib dialogue and ironic tongue-in-cheek exaggeration and cartoon violence and multiple insider nods to this and homages to that.

In a nutshell, all his hip, ironic nodding and winking combined with the ending apotheoses of cartoon-level violence explode any pretence to seriousness, depth or moral vision Django Unchained might want to possess, leaving the brilliant sizzle drowning the meat.

In the end, in my view, on the evidence of this movie, I'll give, as I  have, Tarantino his props for his movie making skills, his screen writing, his humour, his narrative control, his energy and irreverence, his expertise and love for the vast range of cinema itself, other things. But I want to claim that in his art Tarantino is a moral idiot.

And for those who worry about a toxic culture of violence in an America awash in an insane number of guns of incredible lethality and in permissive laws about them, they might consider the relation between Tarantino's movie and the very toxicity rightfully decried...

Monday, December 10, 2012

A Bit From A Theory Of Moral Sentiments

In Adam Smith's Theory Of Moral Sentiments he puts the example of somebody hearing or reading that somewhere remote from him a terrible circumstance has taken a massive amount of lives as we heard a few years ago about Haiti. We are discomfited by the news but no so much. We are able to eat our dinner that night, entertain ourselves over the course of the evening and we can likely sleep quite well. Contrast that, Smith says, to the news that you must soon lose your small finger. That news will occasion much more anxiety and perhaps a few nights of restless sleep. But then says Smith, in a brilliant twist in his thought piece, imagine we could save an equal number of the lives just hypothetically lost by sacrificing that same small finger. Indubitably says Smith most of us would readily sacrifice our finger.  

Monday, December 3, 2012

On Camus, Camus and Sartre

The Stranger Who Resembles Us

"Even my death will be contested. And yet what I desire most today is a quiet death, which would bring peace to those whom I love."
Albert Camus's prediction has been borne out—but not his hope. As France approaches next year's centennial of the French Algerian writer's birth, controversies have crackled over the meaning of his life and work. These battles, which have swept up intellectuals and politicians, have as much to do with France's troubled past—in particular its ties with its former colony Algeria—as they do with our own troubling present.

Camus was remarkable witness to his times. Like George Orwell, he was right about the plagues of the era—totalitarianism and Communism. Also like Orwell, Camus's lucid gaze, blunt honesty, and persistent humanity have made him as discomfiting and indispensable since his death in 1960 as he was during his short life.
Over the past couple of years, official efforts to commemorate Camus have faltered. In 2009, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy's proposal that the writer's remains be moved to the Panthéon, the neo-Classical pile dedicated to France's "great men," was assailed by critics, outraged that the conservative president was trying to yoke his name to a writer who had spent his life on the political left. While Sarkozy believed that he needed Camus, concluded Camus's biographer Olivier Todd, "Camus has no need for Sarkozy."

More recently, ideological and political collisions have capsized plans for a grand centennial exhibition in Aix-en-Provence, home of the Camus archives. Two exhibit directors, Benjamin Stora, a historian of French Algeria, and Michel Onfray, a popular philosopher (and author of a controversial biography of Camus), were toppled by political foes. The result has been paralysis. Officials in Aix insist that an exhibit, though more modest given Paris's refusal to subsidize the event, will nevertheless be held. The title of Stora's torpedoed exhibit, "Albert Camus: The Stranger Who Resembles Us," has never seemed truer.

Few writers were more conflicted over personal and national identity than Camus. He was a pied-noir, the moniker given to immigrants who came to French Algeria during the 19th and 20th centuries. Many of them came from elsewhere in Europe, becoming citizens of a nation, France, whose language they did not speak, whose history they did not know, and whose soil they did not set foot on.

Algeria was nevertheless considered part of France, even with several million Arabs and Berbers who were denied the rights of citizenship. By the 1950s, Camus resembled one of his mythic heroes, Prometheus, chained not to a rock but to the impasse of Algeria's resistance to a foreign occupation—a French occupation. He labored for a solution that would satisfy the imperatives of justice for both Arabs and pieds-noirs, risking his life in pursuit of an impossible peace.

Camus's efforts failed, and he fell silent—a public silence that began in 1956 and remained almost unbroken until his death, four years later. One of the two notable interruptions was the publication, in 1958, of Chroniques algériennes, the collection of Camus's articles on Algeria. (In May, Harvard University Press will publish Arthur Goldhammer's masterly translation.)

The second exception was Camus's controversial reply, in Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957, to an Algerian student who was hectoring him for his public silence. Camus reminded the student that he had long denounced the political and economic repression of Arabs and Berbers, but that he also condemned the use of blind violence by Algerian nationalists: "People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways.

If that is justice, then I prefer my mother." If that doesn't sound quite right, it is because the familiar quotation—"I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice"—was the invention of the French newspaper Le Monde, which sympathized with the cause of Algerian nationalists and cordially despised Camus. Le Monde published a correction three days later.

After the so-called second Algerian War, or "black decade" of the 1990s, which pitted the government against Islamic fundamentalists, leaving more than 100,000 civilians dead, several Algerian writers discovered Camus as one of their own. Secular, moderate, and French-speaking, these Algerians saw a parallel between their own embattled identity vis-à-vis Muslim fundamentalists and Camus's insistence on the Algerian identity of the pieds-noirs.

These Algerian writers are drawn to Camus first because of his Algerian roots but also because his writing evokes universal values. That is perhaps why his spirit has hovered over the Arab Spring. Yesterday it was Camus, today it is Bouazizi, a Tunisian intellectual recently affirmed, referring to the young man whose suicide ignited the liberation movement in Tunisia and much of the rest of North Africa. "He is perhaps no longer part of our world, but he is not silent. ... His cry is primal: He demands the right to dignity, to work. He demands the right to enjoy the rights all humans should enjoy." The words are redolent of language from The Rebel.

Camus wrote against the deadly sophistries of communism and its penchant for rationalizing mass murder and political repression, but his lucid analysis also applies to the autocratic states of North Africa, which had long emphasized order over democracy, the status quo over the uncertainties of change. We were asked to overlook the corruption and brutality, to excuse it in the same paternalistic terms—the people are not ready for democracy—that Arab leaders used even as they were being pushed out the door.

In The Rebel, Camus described revolt as the response of human beings who, pushed too far, reject "the spectacle of irrationality, confronted with an unjust and incomprehensible condition." For young Egyptians under an octogenarian rais, propped up by a murderous police force and billions in American military aid, for young Tunisians under a kleptomaniac ruler whose family turned the nation into a warehouse to pillage, and for young Libyans under a lunatic whose rule rivaled Caligula's over Rome, the moment finally arrived, as Camus put it, that "the outrage be brought to an end."

Before our age of social networks, Camus understood that rebellion swells from an individual to a collective response. "In our daily trials, rebellion plays the same role as does the 'cogito' in the realm of thought. ... I rebel—therefore we exist." Something has been violated in the individual that "does not belong to him alone, but which is common ground where all men—even the man who insults and oppresses him—have a natural community." For that reason, the rebel does not deny the humanity of his master; he denies him only as master. In order to exist, "man must rebel, but rebellion must respect the limits it discovers in itself—a limit where minds meet and, in meeting, begin to exist."

Therein lies the potential tragedy of the Arab Spring. The rebels in Tunisia and Egypt were acutely aware of the limits their humanity imposed, but the growing influence of Islamist parties, and their questionable adherence to the values that propelled them to power, threatens to transform spring into winter.

Far from meeting, minds instead verge on colliding. In The Rebel, Camus depicts rebellion, grounded in our shared humanity with others, including our foes, as modest and bounded by self-imposed constraints, while revolution, bound to abstract goals, is totalizing and without limit.

Camus had in mind the Terror of the French Revolution and the gulag of the Soviet Union, but he would not have been surprised by, say, the Iranian revolution of 1979 or the path that the Arab Spring may take. Now, as then, "triumphant revolution" reveals itself "by means of its police, its trials, and its excommunications."

Are all rebellions fated to take this path? Must they be unmade by the very same dynamic that led to their making? Camus places a desperate wager on the rebel's persistent humanity, but he does not explain how rebellion can be maintained without spilling into either revolution or reaction. At times he even seems to suggest that rebellion is, by its very nature, a noble but impossible ideal. For Rieux, the taciturn hero of The Plague, resistance against disease amounts to little more than "a never-ending defeat." For that reason, Camus insisted that there was no reason for hope but little reason for despair—a sentiment perhaps better suited for the ancient tragedians than modern political theorists, but one whose hard-won wisdom will always abide.

Camus's chronic inability to be lulled by the rationalizations we give for our own or others' actions, his infernal gift for forcing not just his own self, but also those around him, to reconsider deeply held beliefs, makes him our contemporary. Though we no longer face the threats of Nazism or Communism, we will always face a different kind of threat—the temptation to avert our eyes from our own age's man-made plagues, whether global warming or civil wars. Herein lies Camus's abiding significance. He had a habit, as Tony Judt wrote, of looking "in the mirror of his own moral discomfort." His work and life, in turn, hold that same mirror up to rest of us.

For Judt, Camus was, in a way, a Gallic George Orwell. The comparison is not unique to Judt but has been proposed by many writers and public figures, from Susan Sontag to Newt Gingrich.
The resemblances are, in fact, riveting. Both men were committed antifascists but also committed antitotalitarians; both risked their lives in the struggle against fascism (Orwell in Spain, Camus in occupied France); both were journalists and essayists as well as novelists (Camus the better novelist, Orwell the more skilled essayist); both, though despised by many on the European left, never surrendered their identification with the values of socialism; both, equally hostile to the imperial policies of their respective nations, lived parts of their lives in the colonies and refused to simplify their complex reality. Both men were also inveterate smokers, tubercular, and dead at the age of 46.

Most important, both men were moralists. While a moralizer has the answer before he is asked the question, a moralist has only questions after he hears the available answers. Defending Animal Farm against left-wing critics, Orwell declared: "Liberty is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear." Around the same time, Camus vowed: "What belongs to the concentration camp, even socialism, must be called a concentration camp. In a sense, I shall never again be polite." Like Orwell, Camus condemned himself to a solitary public existence but always insisted on solidarity with the oppressed. For both men, this engagement amounted to a form of ethical exigency.

Obviously, the comparison goes only so far. While Camus read and admired Orwell's writings, the Englishman seems to have been unaware of Camus's work. One can, as a result, only imagine Orwell's response to the urgent tone and existential tension of, say, Camus's "The Myth of Sisyphus." Yet the author of 1984 would perhaps have applauded his contemporary's claim: "Judging whether or not life is worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy."

The value of that life depends on the lucidity and honesty with which we live it, our suspicion of abstractions and ends, our embrace of details and means, and our certitude that answers must always be provisional.

There is one last, mostly overlooked quality shared by Camus and Orwell: They both loved nature. Orwell's attachment to the countryside undoubtedly contributed to his early death; his stay on the island of Jura, off the west coast of Scotland, weakened his tubercular lungs. And the iconic black-and-white images of a pensive existentialist make us forget that Camus loved life and nature—and never accepted the label of existentialist.

In The First Man, his unfinished autobiographical novel, which was published posthumously, Camus recalls a childhood game he played at school. On windy days, the boys gather palm branches, rush to the terrace that overlooks the desert plains, and face the wind while gripping the branches. "The branch would immediately be plastered against them, they would breathe its smell of dust and straw. ... The winner was the one who first reached the end of the terrace without letting the wind tear the branch from his hands, then he would stand erect holding the palm branch at arm's length ... struggling victoriously for as long as possible against the raging force of the wind. Perhaps that is the image of Camus to which we should cling.

Robert Zaretsky, a professor of French history at the University of Houston Honors College, is the author of Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (Cornell University Press, 2010). His next book, A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning, will be published next year by Harvard University Press.
As I read it I noted Camus's intellectual moderation paradoxically at one with passionate detestation of extremism even when arrayed against the unjust status quo he similarly detested, all from a posture of pessimism without resignation, that dynamic avoidance of such extremes captured in his distinction between revolution and rebellion.
I kept thinking in reading the first half of this essay how different Camus is as a thinker from Sartre, something that to me tracks the differences between the English philosophers I'm familiar with against the German philosophers I've tried without success to read: which is to say, the difference between concrete thought and insight trying to illuminate the observable against all manner of abstract systematizing that swallows up the observable. In that, I kept thinking about Orwell too, being of course an exemplification of the former.
I can see the conceptual link between the concrete in Camus and the abstract in Sartre and Camus's rejection of totalitarian theory and Sartre's Marxism and his trying to reconcile it with his existentialism: "Camus wrote against the deadly sophistries of communism and its penchant for rationalizing mass murder and political repression..."
I wonder counterfactually what Camus would have made of a Bouazizi, and whether he would have thought of his self immolation as any kind of an iteration of his own political struggles, perhaps a Promethean figure, or whether the very act of self immolation, understandable, awesome, in its heroic desperation, is self -defeating from the standpoint of the rebel? I need to Camus's thought better to speculate better on this question.
Given the distinction Camus draws between rebellion and revolution, for him the "American revolution" would have been a misnomer and better named, within in his terms, the "American rebellion."
Finally, I didn't know of, and find it striking, Camus's love of nature. I cannot imagine Sartre, who must have gotten such colour in his face as he had, from electric lights, loving nature. For him it's a stinking chaotic grossness, which sickens him and which he must recreate and order

George V. Higgins and Killing Them Softly


I want to argue that the brilliant George V. Higgins is a criminally-- and I use the word aptly--neglected American novelist of the first order. As Norman Mailer said about his first novel, The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, I paraphrase, "Who knew the fuzz (Higgins was a federal prosecutor) could write like that." He was a master of point of view and exposition revealed by brutally authentic dialogue. To not read him is to miss first rate American literary wonder and achievement. To wit:


I just saw Killing Them Softly. It didn't have a beat and you couldn't dance to it. 

Which is one of its points. 

It's a dour, sour, grim and unrelenting representation of the lower side of low lifes seemingly redeemed only by the soulless, glamorous competence of a homicidally wise and shrewd and controlled Brad Pitt as a fixer-killer. 

All about his low life sun orbit planets of weakness, unremitting violence, dumbness, degeneracy, self delusion, griminess, hypocrisy and inveterate dishonesty--even to the point of a lower of the low lifes trying to snatch the dollar tip his higher up low life boss has left for a waitress. 

Where the talk, the bountiful, great, authentic low life talk and the mean spirited action are portrayed faithfully to George V. Higgins's novel Cogan's Trade, the movie is strong and compelling, making its meaning about the lifelessness of the low life world--no beat, no dance. 

Gangster life follows itself down new born streets fleeing its own grim shadow.

But to my mind the movie veers off badly into representations of a junkie's haze and into the aesthetics of bullet-shattering-glass-and-body violence and sheer physically brutal, beat down violence. 

And it veers off badly into political allegory wherein the low lifes and their degenerate, murderous crime premised ways stand for capitalist and high finance America and, more, personal relations in America itself.

When it so veers off, the movie loses its compelling dour, sour, relentlessly grim centre. 

The aesthetics seem only for their own sake, adding no thematic resonance I can see, in fact subtracting from the film’s grim theme.

The political allegory is too thin and unearned to be taken seriously and marks an intellectual failure of the movie--positing these low lifes and their world as the literal ground on which to symbolize high finance America and human relations within America. The former simply cannot bear the fullness, richness, complexity and variegated nature of the latter; the latter overwhelms the former. 

The parts of the movie that are faithful to Higgins make as good crime drama, unremitting, remorseless, unredeemable, as any I can remember being portrayed on film, the strength deriving from the very uncompromising and unflinching grimness of the portrayal. And that's why the contrasting good looks, steady strength, shrewd, having-his-shit-entirely-together competence of Brad Pitt only seems redemptive. 

For all the tantalizing glamour and competent strength he may be thought to embody, the stinking, nihilistic, human sewer in which he moves, seemingly untouched, moves in him too, inseparable from him.

Musing Over Spielberg's Lincoln

Me: I saw Lincoln for a second time and liked it a lot better than the first time. I'm perplexed by one point:

Lincoln wanted to delay the Confederate Peace Commissioners' peace offer and keep them out of D.C.

The reason for that is, I think, that conservative Republican congressman knowing that peace was nigh upon them wouldn't then have supported passage of the Amendment.

And that's because save

for hastening the end of the war they, unlike the radical Republicans, were cold toward the idea of the Amendment on its own terms.

Which is to say, again, it was thought passage of the Amendment would hasten the end of the war.

But why?

That's what I'm not getting: why from the standpoint of the Confederacy would passage of the Amendment have caused it to end the war more quickly?

The only answer I can derive from the movie is that if that the end of slavery was a legal fait accomplit the Confederacy would no longer be motivated to keep fighting.

But this "answer" seems illogical, since the potential ending of slavery was a very cardinal thing the Confederacy was fighting against in the first place.
I feel like I'm not getting something, but what?
Haven't seen the movie, but I'll venture an opinion anyway. As I understand it, this passage came at a time when the last hope of the Confederacy was for some sort of negotiated settlement which would leave them with some claim to slavery within their existing territory, which after all was Lincoln's original position when the war began. What Lincoln saw was necessary, then, was for some large and irrevocable step that would remove that last shred of hope -- and that step was the passage of the Constitutional Amendment.
Me and Jeff:
Makes sense to me, too

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Fran Lebowitz

There are some days, which come up randomly,  when you're a little off, not blue or sad so much as just off, as though the square peg of you isn't fitting into the round hole of the world that day, as though for ostensibly petty reasons the universe that day isn't unfolding as it should. (The reasons may seem elusive and small but I have a hunch that if we drilled into them some we'd discern them and wouldn't love much what we discerned.)

Today started as such a day for me for reasons I choose not to drill into. This afternoon had my wife doing good works, as she often does, today volunteering at, I think, the recurring Toronto Jewish Film Festival. I had plans to meet some friends but they  got put off. So, restless, I did what I often do when visited by a certain restlessness, I jumped in my car got a coffee, drove and listened to the radio. 

With each passing mile and sip of coffee, I felt better, the usual effect of so doing. And then a favourite program of mine came on the radio, on the CBC, a radio hour called Writers And Company, hosted by the incomparably gifted Canadian broadcaster and literary intellectual Eleanor Wachtel. She had as her guest for the hour Fran Lebowitz, with whom I have some familiarity, more aware of who she is, more having seen some snippets of her being interviewed, more having read snippets of her writing, than having taken her in and having paid her some concentrated attention. 

What a lapse and gap that's been!! 

Interviewed for an hour, I found her to be an archetype of a certain kind of New Yorker, sardonic and mordant on stilts but that leavened by tremendous and penetrating wit, straight talking, curmudgeonly to a fault but that too with the same tremendous leavening, incredibly smart and incisively insightful--for example saying that literature doesn't lend itself to abstraction the way painting does because the medium of words requires thought in itself the way other media of the arts, painting music, whatever do not, and therefore she has little patience, same with me, with writers who do twists and turns with language, and that writers can't write without knowing things and so in writing we don't have extremely youthful prodigies the way other kinds of art do. 

(By the way her analysis of what AIDS in the early eighties in wiping out so much of the gay population wrought for understanding gay art, the gay bohemian cultural sensibility, and, fascinatingly, the rapid acceptance of gay marriage is telling.)

This is a powerful intellect and as powerful a wit, and she distinguishes nicely between wit and comedy, which doesn't suffer fools; and she doesn't bear the flaws of some autodidacts, and she is one, a high school dropout, who in my experience often know a lot of varied things but can't marshal what they know.

Lebowitz has the incisive, orderly, metonymic mind of a great lawyer, but her wit, intelligence, learning, completely unabashed honesty about herself and the world and range of interests take her far, far beyond what most great lawyers think, write and say. 

So as I was listening to the hour so richly full of her, my own mood ascending of its own accord started to change into exultance on enjoying her wonders.

Above's a podcast of the interview. The minute after I post this I'm going to download stuff of hers to read. What tremendous serendipity this all was.

Who Won--Israel Or Hamas, November 25, 2012?

Posted: 25 Nov 2012 02:28 AM PST

By Barry Rubin

Naturally the question of who won any given war preoccupies people’s minds. And I’m amused by those who think that Hamas won the recent conflict. Winning has to mean something real, not just bragging to reassure oneself.

Let’s begin by examining the causes and goals of each side. Hamas’s goal was to be able to attack Israel as much as it wanted without significant retaliation. This time, as in late 2008, the war began because Hamas escalated the level of its attacks on Israel to unacceptable levels (more on that phrase in a moment). The same might be said of Hizballah in 2006.

Israel’s goal was to force Hamas to the lowest possible level of attacks and to make such attacks as ineffective as possible. Incidentally, that was also Israel’s strategy in dealing with the PLO. Attempts to “solve” the problem once and for all, varying from the 1982 invasion of Lebanon to the Oslo peace process of the 1990s didn’t work too well.

Nevertheless, Israel was able to achieve its more limited aim against Hamas in the later 2008-early 2009 campaign to gain four years of relative quiet. With Hizballah, this goal has now held for six years. That’s not bad given the reality of contemporary international politics and the Middle Eastern situation, both of which keep Israel from gaining a “total victory.”

Ideally, of course, there is no good reason that the world ensure the survival of a terrorist, totalitarian, illegal, and genocide-oriented regime in the Gaza Strip. Nevertheless, that is the reality. If the idea of Israel going in on the ground into the Gaza Strip provoked so much international horror, imagine the reaction to Israel overthrowing Hamas altogether.

And for Israel to overthrow Hamas it would either have to govern the Gaza Strip itself, restarting the whole post-1967 process and facing daily gun battles there or to turn over the territory to someone else. Since the Palestinian Authority isn’t interested in such an arrangement and is incapable of even making a serious effort to overthrow Hamas nobody else is going to do so or take power there.

So Hamas’s survival as ruler of the Gaza Strip was not some victory in a war that lasted a little over a week but is guaranteed in effect by the international and regional order. Can Hamas continue to violate the ceasefire? Of course, because Israel's only way of enforcing it is military retaliation and now, as has been true for the last five years, Israel has to consider how to do each one without being blamed for a breakdown in the ceasefire. That won't stop Israel from hitting back with the goal of minimizing Hamas's attacks.

After these two significant factors--which both existed beforehand--it’s all downhill for Hamas. Given the destruction of its weaponry, Hamas is less able to attack than it had been and while every Hamas leader denies it, the vision of their colleagues getting killed does have a deterrent effect on their boldness.

The amount of regional support Hamas received during the recent war was remarkably low. The anti-Islamist Arab states wanted Hamas to lose. Iran cheered and sent missiles which is quite significant but only gets you so far. The Arab street didn’t do much; Syria’s regime is busy with the civil war; Iraq is for all practical purposes out of the conflict. Whatever lip service it gives, the Shia Islamist Hizballah didn’t lift a trigger finger to help Sunni Islamist Hamas.

It was these factors that led Fareed Zaharia, the influential American commentator—no friend of Israel—who has Obama’s ear to write a Washington Post piece entitled, "Israel dominates the new Middle East."

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Bit More Between The Rabbi And Me As We Dance Away From The Theme Of Sustaining Faith In Light Of The Holocaust

Dear Mr. Basman,

In some ways it is good to hear that your agnosticism stems from convictions outside the Holocaust.

But you still leave me wondering at the extent of your Jewish education; have you studied Jewish religious or legal texts? Talmud? Midrash? Maimonides? With a teacher?

To me, these are G-d’s abode –where He lets Himself be found.

Thank you for the care that goes into your letters and thinking.


Dear Rabbi Polak:

Since you asked, as they say: I grew up and came of age in a markedly secular household in Winnipeg and Vancouver in the forties, fifties and early sixties; my father was a fairly well known Yiddishist in Bund circles, particularly in Canada, and was until the then U.S.S.R. invaded Czechoslovakia a committed Communist but remained a Marxist in his beliefs his whole life; I went to Yiddish Schools evenings, after public school, run by my father as principal and teacher and studied among other things Peretz, Sholem Aleichem and Mendele Mokher Sefarim; I wasn’t bar mitzvahed; As a kid I was a member of the Young Communist League but got well and “severely,” to quote a certain presidential candidate, educated out of that nasty truck through my university years.

I studied English Literature and completed a graduate degree in it and then went to law school, doing a Ph.D. the road not taken.

I haven’t studied Jewish religious or legal texts, the Talmud or Midrash, but have read some of Maimonides without a teacher. My English studies had me studying and reading the New Testament and certain amounts of Christian based literature rather than Jewish texts. And Jewish legal texts formed no part of my legal education.

So I haven’t really been in the abode you refer to in quite a lovely way.

I will reciprocally thank you for your interest and for being intent on putting things in their best light, no ad idem notwithstanding.

I’ll simply conclude saying that while it has been a clear pleasure to have this most brief exchange with you, I’m pretty well where I was in my first letter and in my just last one. In a nutshell, for me the Holocaust ought beggar faith and belief.

Best Wishes, Sincerely, and Most Respectfully,
Itzik Basman

zayendik fun vinipeg farendersht zich dem gantzen farshtanden, dem oisblik fun nisht-gloiben. Vifil mo;l, in mayneh yungeh yoren, bin ich gegangen heren di lektzies fun Arthur Meyer Lermer, dem hoibt fun Bund in Canada, ven er hot gepravet zayneh gesheften in economics, in mayn shule (Sir George Williams University) in Montreal. Oich bin ich gegangen, vifil mol, heren dem yidishen chor zingen in Morris Winchevsky shule dorten. Ich hob zeyer lieb gehat vi yeneh yidden hoben einer in tzveiten ge-ert hoben, oich lieb gehat. Ober oich hob ich gefielt vi avekgeshnitten zei zeinen gevn fun'm vortzel, fun'm Toi reh, vos hot oif zei geveint...

You have now piqued my curiosity: may I ask what your Eng. Lit. interests are?


Dear Rabbi Polak:

It was unanticipated but I’m delighted to have piqued your interest, and you may ask. I can only hope you won’t be sorry you did.

Since you asked, in my graduate studies, I concentrated on Shakespeare and, in odd conjunction, the Canadian novel, the latter having vast expanses of Canadian Winter-like dreariness. In my program we had to write a Masters thesis of 100 plus pages. My first choice was to write something on Hamlet, the mysteries of which I felt had unlocked a little but ran into the brick wall of an inordinate amount of academic criticism, which I didn’t have the will to wade through and confront. So, again oddly, I jumped a few centuries ahead and landed on the novels of Mordecai Richler. They were blessed by a paucity of criticism at the time, and I interpreted them, concluding with St. Urbain’s Horseman, which was published just as I was winding up my writing. 

One of the driving reasons I chose Richler was that I had read most of his then novels in my teens and could inchoately identify with the deracinated Jews populating Duddy Kravitz. Those vague feelings of identity stayed with me and I felt that if I really got into Richler’s novels I might be able to elucidate for myself, and bring some precision to, that vagueness. I wrote a good thesis but that search for greater clarity in relation to my Jewishness didn’t suceed.

Had I chosen to follow my original path, a doctorate, my idea was to concentrate on the then Jewish Canadian and American novelists of the mid twentieth century such as Richler, Roth, Bellow, Malamud, Ludwig, Mailer, Salinger and before them Henry Roth.

By the bye, I took some extended time off from work about 8-9 years ago and as part of that, simply for my own interest, sat down with a pocketbook edition of Hamlet, virtually no criticism, perhaps 2-3 articles, and wrote what’s now called an EBook, 135 pages, Futility As Tragedy: An Interpretation of Hamlet. It was nicely received in a few tiny circles and is one of the most satisfying things I’ve done. (I’ll unsubtly note my contention in my extended essay that Shakespeare was secular, much too mordantly pessimistic to be called a secular humanist, but with no eye to any salvation, hope or solace from religious faith.)

I’ve kept up a layman’s interest in changes in literary criticism since I’ve left school, trying to get a handle on post modernism, noting its waning, and noting two divergent academic roads: one, an unapologetic return to the sturdy textualism of the New Criticism; and two, a post modern legacy of moving through texts to all kinds of historical, cultural and socio-economic subjects revealed by them with the emphasis on the latter as opposed to the texts. An example would be an essay by Mark Edmunson on Blake’s London:

Generally now my reading is eclectic and necessarily time constrained by my work and my other interests. With the time I have I’m trying to fill in gaps in my reading of the great novels, having of late read Don Quixote, Daniel Deronda, Madame Bovary, The Brothers Karamazov—a real struggle—and am now reading The Red and the Black and Henry James’s The Princess Casamissa. This project was inspired by my not -so long-ago close rereading of Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination.

On a different note, I might wish I longed for the soul’s fulfillment that might come from the abode of the great Jewish texts, but I seem not to. Wonderful it would be though to enter that dwelling. albeit lacking in metaphysical longing, and discover how things are in it.

Best wishes,
Itzik Basman

A Bit On The Nature Of Rights

I have just concluded a most interesting discussion with two friends on the nature of rights. 

We reached no meeting of minds at the end. 

It took me some time to find my firm positional footing but it finally came to me just as the discussion was ending. I took the position of a legal positivist. 

If it's of any interest to anyone, here are my concluding remarks:

...If Bentham and Burke, in w
hom I claim no competence, but just going from what you quoted of them, reject natural law, they are left with positive law as the account of what law and rights, as a necessary part of the essential constituents of law, are. Their position is, as I take it, that rights have no meaning save as the state or judicial authority enacts them. 

That's the consequence of Bentham calling natural law, which includes the idea of inalienable rights, "nonsense on stilts." 

On the positive law account of what law, hence rights, are, it makes no difference whether God gives us what we turn into rights or nature does. Until enacted or decided by legitimate authority they are as nothing. 

When speaking of a right to this or that outside of positive law, one speaks rhetorically and metaphorically, but not substantively or "empirically" in relation to rights.

When, as you say, people are asking for a law to be made they are asking for the creation of rights. The source of they want may be up for all kinds of debate, may be a mystery, may be from nature, or from God, or from wherever: from the perspective of what rights are it simply doesn't matter. 

What matters is what they want being made into legal flesh as rights in law. Then and only then does anything we can concretely call a right arise...

Monday, November 19, 2012

Divinity, Memory, Theology, the Holocaust and God's Very Existence

The Last Witness

Joseph Polak — July 2012, Commentary

Imagine it: the end of an era. The last person able to testify to all that transpired, to all that befell us, the last person who could affirm that we indeed saw what we saw, is gone. Of all the rememberers, I alone am left to sit here, knowing that my time will also come. And then, what becomes of the tale?

I am limited in what I remember; I was not yet three when the war ended. What value is there in the few horrific scenes I can conjure? The historical record is not enriched by them. My memory has become a datum, a relic. Valid, but inessential.

While they still lived, I stood among the other survivors, seasoned, wizened men and women who were perpetually old, prematurely gaunt. Their bodies reflected those days. The deep shadows of what they had once taken in never left them.

They would glance at me in passing, surveying my inconsequentiality, often with patience, often without. I was a fly. “Do you really know, child,” they would ask, “do you really know what it is to have your parents shot before your eyes, do you really know what it is to have your grandparents thrown out of the upstairs window during a liquidation?”

Did I know? I would put my hands in my pockets and shrug, looking, in those early days, for a cigarette. Did I know? The question was an accusation. You do not understand, they were saying, you were too young to make sense of it. The carnage and death, the murder by fever and by hunger—all of which I witnessed, some of which I experienced—were not valid to them because I could not have made sense of such experiences as they occurred. My testimony was that of a blind man. I heard the noises, put it all together later; not acceptable in a court of law, not sufficiently real.

“You say you were there,” they argued. “But you really weren’t.”

Then they would appear astonished at the pain that came over my face from such invalidation and would hastily take pity.

Bist geven a yingeleh,” they would say. It’s not your fault, you were just a kid. Children, they meant, are frivolous; let’s not take their experiences seriously.

They are all gone now. Their hoary heads and Polish teeth have crossed the great divide, and I alone, I alone am left to tell the tale. I’m a bit of a fake, don’t you think? A bit of a liar, no?

When those memories I did possess would beckon, I trembled. Sleepless nights would become my lot, filled with chills and despair. They were without solace, without consolation. I would not allow love. Love promised that what little memory I did have would be submerged. Love meant the cesspool that was Bergen-Belsen would disappear.

When I was 10 years old, my father murdered, my mother married a man in Montreal who forbade mention of the Holocaust. Shall we let it disappear, I wondered? And if we did, would I continue being? I lived with him but did not take up with him.

I did not, could not, remember what brought on my nocturnal fits of madness; there were no visual scenes in my imagination when primordial terrors wracked my body. I could not remember why I would periodically get mammoth rheumatic tremors that seized me in the darkness and in the light. I did not remember why Mother’s moans of terror shuddered within me decades after she died. I knew that I was afraid of her, not for what she had been but for what she had become. I knew that I did not have, did not want to have, the toughness in her that allowed her to survive. Yet did it enter me, yet does it overtake me. It turns people away when they sense it; I am not easy to love.

For all that, I did not visit my past, really, never gave it a glance, until I turned 50. Slowly I stared at it, slowly, with index cards, I put it into chronological order: the Hague, Westerbork, Bergen-Belsen, the Hague.

Soon after the end of the Holocaust, in Montreal, I fell in with other child survivors. They made up fully a third of my seventh-grade class. We were silent about our past. When the topic came up, we would become restless and look about anxiously for distraction. We did not want to be witnesses; we just wanted to be like everyone else. Eventually we each became an anti-witness. We didn’t want to hear about it, talk about it; we pretended that the ordeal happened to others, to those who did have numbers on their arms. Perhaps we understood that the mature survivors constituted the most humiliated group of people on earth, and we wanted no part of their residual shame.

Mother died when I turned 40. Freddie, a tad older than I, came to sit with me at her shivah.

“Do you remember, Joseph,” he said, “do you remember how we used to play hide-and-seek around the corpses in Bergen-Belsen?”

I did not remember, but it was this question, coming from him, that allowed me to accept myself as a survivor. And it has taken nearly three decades following that shivah for me to have learned that what my mind does not remember, my body does, and so does my soul.

Hesitantly I take my place among the survivors. I get into the line at the gates of the death camps, and I am there, more in death than in life.

And so I sometimes entertain this fantasy that, because of my sheer youth during those years, I am the Last Witness. The Holocaust will pass out of experience and into history. There will be no one left to say “and then they took my parents away and I never saw them again,” or “Moishalleh died in my arms; he had not eaten anything in two weeks and his nine-year-old frame could not take it any more,” or “my high school teacher examined all the boys in the class, and all the circumcised ones were expelled.”

I carry this fear that when I disappear, so will the last memories of that great darkness, so will the fecal stench that attended the typhus, so will the ravages of the outdoors that attended the roll calls, and the stiffness, everywhere, of the corpses. And in the absence of such primary memories, how long will it take for a civilized country again to allow a leader into office who harbors evil beliefs and insidious desires? And how long until the physicians and lawyers and judges and philosophers and writers and musicians and composers and conductors join his cause?

I wonder: If I indeed turn out to be the Last Witness, will my death mark the beginning of the Great Forgetting?

At such moments, fortunately, I have also come to realize the arrogance of such questions, and to understand that such arrogance is where idolatry and atheism begin.

For I will not be the Last Witness; the last Witness will be the greatest, the most humiliated Witness of all. I speak of course, of G-d Himself. He Who is everywhere had to have been there, too. He had to have been present, and He had to have witnessed His reputation as redeemer and savior of Israel sink into the mud of Treblinka and Belzec.

“What will the Egyptians say?” Moses asks when G-d threatens to destroy Israel after they worship the Golden Calf. “Do you want them to say that You took the Jews out of Egypt only so that You might destroy them Yourself when they reached the desert?”

The argument worked; He was averse to being misconstrued.

There is a scene in the great Rolf Hochhuth play The Deputy in which a priest asks the character Hochhuth, based on Josef Mengele, something along the line of, “Have you no fear of divine retribution? Do you not believe that G-d will call you to account for this?”

And Mengele is made to answer: “You have no idea, no idea, how I wish with all my heart that He strike me down, that He slay me every time I send a child to the gas. But He doesn’t.”

No one came out of the Holocaust looking worse than G-d. He is compassionate, the theologians used to say! He hates evil, they claimed! Omnipotent, they said! Caring for His chosen people, the liturgy reads: “Ha-oneh le`amo yisrael be-et shavom elav” (“He Who answers the prayer of His people whenever they turn to Him”). Not this time, not six million times.

Yet although He did not save six million of His people, in an extraordinary reversal of roles and of history, His people, the ones who did survive, saved Him.

The rabbis who escaped the infernos spent scant time contemplating, much less bemoaning what the philosopher Martin Buber has called the eclipse of G-d.

“With ten trials was Abraham tested,” the Mishnah recalls, and he passed them all. Why didn’t Abraham ask G-d all those moral questions about his final trial, the binding of Isaac? “Didn’t you just promise me a chapter ago that my seed will come through Isaac? What am I now supposed to tell people about divine commitments? Is Isaac guilty of something that merits the death penalty? With respect to Isaac, shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” Abraham, who clearly knows such questions, does not ask them. When you are in love, as Abraham was with G-d, your love sabotages all such inquiries. Rashi, the great medieval teacher and exegete, says it most clearly: “Lo hirher ahar midotav merov ahavato (“Because of his great love for G-d, Abraham was not interested in G-d’s intentions and agendas”).

The rabbi of Zanz-Klausenberg, who came out of the camps shaven and shrunk, raged for years about his Holocaust experiences, yet skipped nary a beat in his loving worship of his creator, and embarked almost at once on a successful campaign to build a hospital. The rabbis of Bobov, Ungvar, and Satmar created housing for the poor and provided food programs for the infirm. Like the rabbi of Modzhits, another survivor, who composed and sang his way through the 1950s and 1960s, they built houses of worship, ritual baths, and educational institutions in numbers unmatched ever in Jewish history.

The mighty theological questions emerging from that muddy darkness, they found, merely led back to the gates of Auschwitz, and they chose not to go back there. Never would they be humiliated again, and never again would they permit G-d such humiliation.

And they had confidence that He Who commands the dawn to follow the night will represent them fairly when the last witness is gone, that He Himself will report on the heroism of the victims and on how, in their last moments, they sanctified His name.

The Last Witness will join the legions of victims in the celestial palace that is touted as the place where Elijah, in G-d’s presence, will provide the mighty answers—including one that deals with the great absence while one-and-a-half million Jewish children were being murdered.

Two lines will form in heaven, each of them silent. No one will be asking Elijah a thing.

The first line, with Dostoevsky as its guide, might say: “Elijah, tell G-d that we really have no interest in post-facto explanations about His great absence; it’s just too late for explanations, too much injustice, too much cruelty has been allowed to happen. The notion of an adequate answer to such horror is itself repulsive.”

The second line, forming the dialectic, would have Abraham as its guide. It might assert, “It was never about us, Elijah; we never sought, and still don’t need, explanations. It was always about G-d. We just couldn’t bear His vast humiliation, and we did what we could to mitigate it. Blessed be His name for ever and ever.”

And, were I the Last Witness, I would rage against both camps and ask how dare they remain silent, what self-absorbed luxury were they indulging, anyway, when the memory of that time, of those children, is in danger of dissipating?

“Where is G-d?” I would thunder at Elijah.“Is He out there reciting the names of the camps? Belsen, Treblinka, Majdanek, Sobibor? Is He reading the names of the victims?” I would pound the tables with both hands. “Is He weeping?”

About the Author

Joseph Polak is Hillel Rabbi and University Chaplain at Boston University. He is completing a memoir on the first 10 years of his life, which include surviving both the Holocaust and its aftermath.


God, the Holocaust, and Divine Memory

November 2012


To the Editor:

I read with aroused interest Rabbi Joseph Polak’s “The Last Witness” [July/August]. What got my attention was Polak’s imagining briefly the unanswerable question in relation to the Holocaust. As he uniquely cries it out:

“Where is G-d?…Is He out there reciting the names of the camps? Belsen, Treblinka, Majdanek, Sobibor? Is He reading the names of the victims?…Is He weeping?”

These questions are meant to rebuke two opposing assertions put to Elijah as to the “great absence while one-and-a-half million Jewish children were being murdered.” The first imagined assertion is Dostoevskian, that there can be no answer to, or explanation of, such transcendent injustice and cruelty. God should stay silent. The second, opposite, assertion is Abrahamic, that man cannot question God, cannot demand explanations and answers of such awesome divinity.

The rebuke is rageful. How dare anyone remain silent? What self-indulgence allows such silence?

Polak’s questions admit of no answer. They ask what kind of a God would allow such suffering and killing? Who is this God? Wherefore His “great absence”? What penance does He do? Polak “would pound the tables with both hands.” His God must be held to account. Polak is engaged in an imagined confrontation with his creator, from whom he demands some action of remembrance, contrition, and atonement.

I, a non-believer, take a different view. I ask no such questions (of whom, after all?). I am interested in Polak’s questions insofar as they reveal to me the absurdity of belief and faith in light of the overwhelming evil of the Holocaust (in which an uncle and cousin of mine were killed, and during which another cousin of mine suffered but survived the depredations of the concentration camp).

I get no succor or relief from being able to make my God human and contend ferociously with Him. It is a wasted effort. For its presupposition is that there is some divinity worthy of such contention, which concedes reification of a notional God.

If there ever were an occasion that informs Jews that God is not great, that belief and faith in Him are preposterous, and that by them we diminish ourselves and the meaning of the Holocaust, then the Holocaust itself must be that occasion. 

Itzik Basman
Toronto, Ontario


To the Editor:

Joseph Polak’s heartfelt and stirring article resonates within me. Like him, I was born in the Hague, Holland. Unlike him, I survived in hiding, not in Bergen-Belsen. My memory was questioned by adults, my suffering diminished by the assumption of adults that the madness had not touched we youngsters: “You were only a child.”

Joseph and his friend played hide-and-seek around the corpses in Bergen-Belsen. I did not play at all. We children who grew up overnight, did not know play. We were co-operative with our hiders, remained silent unless bidden to talk, and we did not cry.

It appears we two little Dutch boys, Joseph Polak and I, now aged 70 and 72 respectively, are indeed fated to be among the last Shoah survivor witnesses, along with G-d. But can we trust Him to be a reliable witness?

Robert Krell
Vancouver, British Columbia


Joseph Polak writes:

I am struck by how well Mr. Basman read my article, and am grateful for the frankness with which he presents his non-belief. And, if I understand him correctly, he is proposing a kind of Occam’s razor in Holocaust theology: It takes fewer assumptions from the experience of the Holocaust to conclude that there is no G-d than it takes to conclude that there still is one.

Alas, were Mr. Occam alive, I think he would take issue with Mr. Basman. The Holocaust does not pose a single challenge to G-d as Creator, nor to the integrity of His recorded revelation, nor—come to think of it—to most of the classical philosophical proofs that Anselm and Descartes proposed. It does raise questions about our understanding of His role in history—perhaps because we got this wrong in the first place, or perhaps because without the advantage of old-fashioned prophetic revelation, it is impossible to make sense of this role. However, let me assure Mr. Basman that Jews who observe the Sabbath or immerse themselves in the study of the tradition do not seem to feel that they are alone. Nor do they feel that they are deluding themselves.

My article is not about G-d’s existence but instead about divine memory: It is a sort of Midrash on the 2,000-year-old High Holiday liturgy, which claims ve-en shikcha lifnei kisei kevodecho (“there is no forgetting before Your glorious Throne”). More than us, it is G-d Who will have to live with the memory of the Holocaust. What is He doing with this memory?

To my dear friend Robert Krell, the psychiatrist who has dedicated his life to helping child survivors of the Holocaust maneuver their way out of the horror of their memories, my answer is not much different. If G-d can forget nothing—in some ways, that’s terrible. So what is the best way for Him to deal with the Holocaust? Repress it? I think He will be more reliable on keeping the message alive than Dr. Krell gives Him credit for! Or, as I say in the article, I certainly hope so.

(today) Dear Rabbi Polak:

I just today discovered the publication of my letter in November 2012 Commentary concerning your cri de coeur essay, The Last Witness, itself appearing in the July/August 2012 edition of the magazine. I also noted your gracious but respectfully dissenting response, which I very much appreciated.

I’ll hope you don’t mind a pretty brief, direct response rather than engaging the labyrinthine process of writing back via Commentary.

I wonder whether, respectfully, if I’m comprehending your meaning, you’ve accurately characterized my essential point:

... And, if I understand him correctly, he is proposing a kind of Occam’s razor in Holocaust theology: It takes fewer assumptions from the experience of the Holocaust to conclude that there is no G-d than it takes to conclude that there still is one...(my bolding emphasis)

The problem with this characterization, as I read it, is that it locates what I’m saying within the framework, and upon the premises, of Holocaust theology, and that you say I say it simplifies matters considerably—hence the razor, less assumptions—to conclude from the experience of the Holocaust that there is no God rather than that there is one. But I do not come to my nonbelief from the experience of the Holocaust. The formulation that I do puts my nonbelieving cart before my nonbelieving horse.

Rather, I come to my nonbelief by all the intellectual, emotional and experiential means at my disposal over the course of my reading, thinking, academic, writing and lived life. My idea of a “Godless Holocaust” comes from all of that, not the other way around. So for me there is no Occam’s razor that I bring to the Holocaust theology; for me there ought be no theology-- the inquiry into the existence and nature of the divine and its relation to, and influence on, all things—in relation to the Holocaust or to anything else.

One other point—and I mean not to engage in a debate about whether God exists: you say, “My article is not about G-d’s existence but instead about divine memory...” In my field of meagre competence, the law, and the litigated law at that, and from the little I know about formal logic, what you say is a proper example of begging the question, as well as begging the subsidiary question.

The question begged is God’s existence, that, again, only respectfully, not to be o’erleaped by “a sort of Midrash” on divine memory, which presupposes divinity,

The subsidiary question begged, to my mind, indeed perhaps a matter for Holocaust theology as well as other modes of thought and inquiry, is, exactly, the resolution of the awful, terrible tension between belief and faith on one scale and God’s existence on the other. Enragedly pounding the table with both hands, ferociously contending with Him, heartbreakingly asking “Where is G-d” seem to me the wrong responses and the wrong question. The question should be, I argue, foundational not presuppositional. How can there be a God who can visit such incomprehensible, underserved smiting on His Chosen people? How can I, by any means issuing from my mind and heart, reconcile my belief and faith with the experience of the Holocaust?