Responsa – Respect and Critique
In response to my blog, “Our Pristine Island and its Traditional Custodians,” my friend wrote the following:
I wish I shared your view. I would like my spirit to soar. But, sadly, I do not. I fully acknowledge that we are only custodians of the land and that artificial ownership only serves artificial economics, but that does not extend to my placing any significant weight on who came first to the country. So what if the indigenous peoples came first! How is anyone’s worth a function of their ancestors’ place in history? For me, it is all about this generation and who is here now.
I feel no guilt for the residential schools nor the history of white man’s discrimination against native peoples, even though I acknowledge it was all bad and racist. Why? Because my parents came from the coal mines of Wales. We discriminated against no one. We respect everyone. We’ll assist anyone. I am NOT my forgotten very distant ancestors. And even if there was case to be made for bearing some responsibility, look at how those same ancestors treated me and my family. My father was destroyed by war. We grew up in poverty. I was very often marginalized, discriminated against and unassisted. That is the way life is.
To me, we are all in this together. Black, white, yellow and brown. And that requires an acceptance and embrace of all. But that all is restricted to my time on earth and what I can directly influence during my time here. I am not in the least responsible for that which happened when I was not here. It is the main reason I speak up so much now – because I am here now and I am responsible for me now.
Do not misinterpret this as anti-native. They deserve our love and support. But only reasonably so and for those in need. And I will give that, but I will not add an apology nor will I accept responsibility for their current plight. My love and support now should be enough.
Below, please find an open letter to my friend who critically questioned my insistence of acknowledgement and recognition of the role of indigenous people in Canada as well as my celebration of tradition.
To My Dear Friend;
I should not be charging you with confusion or even the note underlying my response to your latest missive, your inconsistency. Logical, you are not. But loveable, endearing, loyal as well as belligerent, but respectful, even worshipping of nature, you are. You have a hard-hearted realism combined with a romantic love of your Sally. And you will refuse right until the end to go gently into that good night. For you will always insist that even death will have no dominion over your soul.
Where do you think that attitude, that stance, came from? Out of the blue?
Let me begin with Bob Dylan who recently won a Nobel prize for his bardic poetry and who dismissed and tried endlessly to run away from his Jewish tradition as Robert Zimmerman to adopt that of another, the Welsh – yes Welsh bard – Dylan Thomas, even as his songs were infused with Biblical themes and phrases. Before I discuss the latter, let me compare my experience of you to the former.
Bob Dylan wrote “Life is Hard.” You not only could write “life is hard,” but you deliberately chose to make it so – physically and in terms of survival. However, look at the differences. Sally is at the centre of that difference. Whereas Bob Dylan wrote,
I’m always on my guard
Admitting life is hard
Without you near me
You too could write “life is always hard,” but you make sure it does not overwhelm you. In contrast with Bob Dylan, you keep the one “so dear and near to you” ever nearer, ever closer, so that she will not slip far away, so that, in the end, with all your scepticism, with all your escape to the northern bush, she would not stray. For with all your sense of emptiness and the lack of meaning in life except that which we give in the day-to-day, you are at heart a romantic.
You continually echo Bob Dylan’s words:
I don’t know what’s wrong or right
I just know I need strength to fight
Strength to fight that world outside
You refuse to feel “a chilly breeze. In place of memories,” you continuously bring up one memory after another, one anecdote piled atop a different one, not to evoke loss, but to insist that you survived, that you sustained yourself through all the tribulations.
In perhaps his most famous song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” the refrain repeats:
“How does it feel, how does it feel?
To be on your own, with no direction home
A complete unknown, like a rolling stone.”
Of course, Bob Dylan became the most famous minstrel of his time, even though he was like a rolling stone, not like the same one Sisyphus rolled up the hill only to see it roll down the next day so that he had to start over, but one that rolled through one tradition after another, from his Judaism, which continued to haunt him all his life and inform his themes and lyrics, through folk and rock, through evangelical Christianity, through the revival of a unique blues voice borrowed from the voices and rhythms of those who struggled hardest in North America.
But you did not follow that path of rolling through history, but a path that rejected history, that rejected a collective community. You chose, instead, to embrace nature and an atomized community of your own. But you too have not found a direction home. Bob Dylan’s song is about surviving in a world of fraudsters, con artists and crooks, a world in which the individual is reduced to one who has “nothing to lose.” You have deliberately sought the world of all monks who aspire to live a life where they have nothing to lose.
In Bob Dylan’s 1965 album, Bringing It All Back Home, there is a song, “I’m only bleeding.” Dylan sings, and I quote in full:
Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child’s balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying
Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn
Plays wasted words, proves to warn
That he not busy being born is busy dying
Temptation’s page flies out the door
You follow, find yourself at war
Watch waterfalls of pity roar
You feel to moan but unlike before
You discover that you’d just be one more
So don’t fear if you hear
A foreign sound to your ear
It’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing
As some warn victory, some downfall
Private reasons great or small
Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
To make all that should be killed to crawl
While others say don’t hate nothing at all
Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred
While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked
An’ though the rules of the road have been lodged
It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge
And it’s alright, Ma, I can make it
Advertising signs they con
You into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes onAll around you
You lose yourself, you reappear
You suddenly find you got nothing to fear
Alone you stand with nobody near
When a trembling distant voice, unclear
Startles your sleeping ears to hear
That somebody thinks they really found you
A question in your nerves is lit
Yet you know there is no answer fit
To satisfy, insure you not to quit
To keep it in your mind and not forget
That it is not he or she or them or it
That you belong to
Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to
For them that must obey authority
That they do not respect in any degree
Who despise their jobs, their destinies
Speak jealously of them that are free
Cultivate their flowers to be
Nothing more than something they invest in
While some on principles baptized
To strict party platform ties
Social clubs in drag disguise
Outsiders they can freely criticize
Tell nothing except who to idolize
And then say God bless him
While one who sings with his tongue on fire
Gargles in the rat race choir
Bent out of shape from society’s pliers
Cares not to come up any higher
But rather get you down in the hole
That he’s in
But I mean no harm nor put fault
On anyone that lives in a vault
But it’s alright, Ma, if I can’t please him
Old lady judges watch people in pairs
Limited in sex, they dare
To push fake morals, insult and stare
While money doesn’t talk, it swears
Obscenity, who really cares
Propaganda, all is phony
While them that defend what they cannot see
With a killer’s pride, security
It blows the minds most bitterly
For them that think death’s honesty
Won’t fall upon them naturally
Life sometimes must get lonely
My eyes collide head-on with stuffed
Graveyards, false gods, I scuff
At pettiness which plays so rough
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
Say okay, I have had enough, what else can you show me?
And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.
Think of how often you refer to the shadows that haunt the silver spoon. Think of your core existential philosophy that can be summed up as, if you are not being reborn daily a la Nietzsche, you are dying. Look at your rejection of sentimentality, your insistence at always being at war with the world in which you look askance at the waterfalls of sentimental tears, acting to improve the world and your self, not only by rejecting pity, but pitiless in your denunciation of sentiment. What you have not yet discovered, as you try so hard and so persistently to harden your heart, I believe, is that you are but “one more person crying” as you bark disillusioned words like bullets. As you have dodged the games people play, as you avoid the siren call of consumer advertising, as you refuse to join in the gargles of the rat race choir and refuse to be bent by society’s pliers, you echo the refrain:
Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to.
For you, money does not talk; it swears. For you reject fake morals and, unlike the cowardly Jeff Sessions, you throw the insults back at megalomaniacs like Donald Trump, You refuse to be part of the obscene world. You scoff as false gods and stuffed graveyards. But you refuse to lay your neck upon a guillotine. For it is all life.
All this said, it is not as if you are anything akin to Bob Dylan. If anything, you have so much more in common with an identity Dylan revered, Dylan Thomas. Of course, I am not writing about Dylan Thomas, the young Salish indigenous artist who lives in British Columbia near you, but the Welsh poet who would be one hundred and two years old today, except he died when he was only about forty. Dylan Thomas was also a minstrel poet, but so different that the bard Bob Dylan that one has a hard time imaging the Welshman as Robert Zimmerman’s idol. But that he was, so much so that he appropriated his name.
But read Dylan Thomas. Read one of the truly greats of your tradition, a tradition you claim not to know and which you overtly eschew, but in your love of words and love of disputation you echo daily. You should steep yourself in the poetry of your ancestry and rediscover your own rich roots in the oldest literary tradition of the English-speaking world. There are a myriad of poets to choose from – Gwenalit Jones and Waldo Williams to name but two of literally hundreds. But I focus on the most famous of them all – Dylan Thomas.
I suspect you do not celebrate Christmas as a Christian holiday, but please read or re-read, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” before this December. Listen hard over the crashing sounds of breaking waves of the two-tongued sea to the distant speaking of Welsh voices. For, like Dylan Thomas, I suspect that the sky and not Granville or Hastings is your real street, and it is the Georgian Straits that sing you carols. For like Dylan Thomas, you desperately need to be transformed into the identity of a hunter, of an Inuit arctic marksman where cats become lynxes and the bell calling out dinner is a gong warning of fire. For the sense and sounds of the present are used to transport you to an ethereal world as grounded and as hard-fisted as you insist you are.
For in your imagination and in your life, you live in another world, an alternative universe, unlike Bob Dylan who always sought and despaired of finding utopia in the here and now. But not for you the age before the motor car, before the motor boat, before electricity and even petticoats. As much as you deny living in the past and insist you live in the present, you are at heart a true romantic who wants to create the world in which he would choose to live. You do it with your raw hands and your once strong back, but the effort is always accompanied by a vivid imagination. You are lyrical even when you insist on being prosaic. You are impassioned even when you disdain passion for lost causes. And you are very funny, even in your dour seriousness.
But it would help if you allowed yourself to become intoxicated with the words of Dylan Thomas, with the musical language of his writing, with the surrealism all life has to offer even as one steeps oneself in its harsh reality. If only you would allow yourself to be embraced by the past, by your beautiful past, instead of rejecting the cold harshness of the Welsh coal town. For Wales also offers a place of beauty, overflowing with life and love and, yes, with tradition, for its towns are also as full as a lovebird’s egg. I believe you have always longed to get back, and are exercising that longing and desire to return to the “limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.”
Just remember that the image of Dylan Thomas was on the Beatles album cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club. Bob Dylan was always searching for his father and made Dylan Thomas his spiritual father, his muse. In the poem, “The Follower,” Seamus Heaney offers a funerary monument to his father. I know what it is like to reject one’s father. The rejection rather than the love lives on in your heart and corrupts the core of who you are. Learning one’s tradition is a step towards one’s grandfather and great-grandfather so that, once again, one can meet one’s father in a new bespoke suit.
There was an unusual amount of response to my letter to my friend. I include only two, one relatively critical of my response and then an email from my friend after he received my analysis. Before I print them, I first want to put the issue of an appropriate tone for critique, which I personally have great difficulty achieving, in a larger context. How do you engage in critique of another while enhancing the other’s ability to absorb what is said?
On this past shabat, in synagogue we began reading the fifth book of the Torah, Deuteronomy. Further, this coming Tuesday is Tisha B’Av, the holy day set aside in remembrance of the destruction of the Temple. I have always been puzzled. If Deuteronomy is a text that introduces hermeneutics at the core of Judaism as Moses reflects on his memories and the deeds of his people as they are about to enter the promised land, if the volume lays more stress on a God of love and justice than a warrior, angry and very reluctantly forgiving God, if God in this text is more removed from the world and primary responsibility is placed on humans themselves for what happens to them, if the text prepared the groundwork for the shift from the emphasis on ritual and sacrifice to the stress on reading and interpreting text, the shift from Judaism as a priestly religion to a prophetic and rabbinic Judaism based on a sacred text, its study and interpretation, why mourn the destruction of the Temple which was the key act that allowed rabbinic Judaism to supplant priestly Judaism?
I will not answer the question, but I offer a direction for finding an answer. We mourn most, not what we have lost, but what we failed to achieve. Tisha B’Av, for me, is more about the situation that led to the destruction of the Temple than its physical demolition. We mourn so that, in the current iteration of disastrous behaviour, we once again do not miss out and allow catastrophe to overwhelm our commonweal.
Our rabbi offered a commentary on one word in Deuteronomy along these lines. The key line is chapter 1, verse 9 of Genesis when God asks Adam, “What’s up?” as if Adam were a mischievous child caught in the crosshairs of a knowing parent. The Hebrew word is אַיֶּכָּה, translated as, “Where art thou?” or, more colloquially, “Where are you at?” This sweet concern combined with the buzzing threatening sting in this word is echoed again in Deuteronomy 1:12.
|יב אֵיכָה אֶשָּׂא, לְבַדִּי, טָרְחֲכֶם וּמַשַּׂאֲכֶם, וְרִיבְכֶם.||12 How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance, and your burden, and your strife?|
Again, there is the word.אֵיכָה.
The word only appears 16 other times in the whole of the biblical text. In Deuteronomy it appears as a considerate and compassionate query into the emotional mind and mindset of the Other instead of merely a seemingly innocent probe with a lining of menace. Lamentations begins with the same word – אֵיכָה – an inquiry into “How” Jerusalem became a faithless city. Again, the tone of hurt combined with rebuke is apparent. Isaiah (1:21) echoes the same sense of wailing reprimand.
The champion boxer, the Louisville Lip, Muhammad Ali, offered words that are most frequently quoted when he promised to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” The words of reproof by God, by Moses, by Isaiah, and by Jeremiah, are admonitions in the form of loving criticism, the very opposite of critique designed to shame and humiliate. It is what a professor ideally does when he critiques a student’s or a colleague’s work, or what a psychoanalyst tries to do with his or her concern and probing queries.
CRITIQUE: THE FOLLOWING TOOK ME TO TASK FOR MY RESPONSE.
In response to whatever he might have said, you are critical, rather harshly, of his unique coping mechanisms. What are you trying to achieve? While we may question his ways, and think we ourselves would not go his ways, he is an independent adult who had made a choice to live life his way. Like we all did.
That he is bitter or negative about some aspects of his experiences is part of his coping: this does not mean he wants to change anything. He feels his ways work for him, so leave it at that, even if you strongly disagree. While we can and do have opinions about how others choose to live their lives, we cannot tell them that they should change, because this is in effect saying that the way they live is wrong and we disapprove of it. Such harsh criticism is not exactly an incentive for anyone to want to heed our well-meant advice. The wish to change must always come from the person himself, and if and when it does, and they need our input, they will approach us. Even if that is the case, I think it is better to employ a quasi-Socratic method in that we merely assist them in clarifying their own thoughts: the thoughts and feelings must originate from them, not from us. I know I know, I sometimes comment re: your behaviour or rather about the impression it makes on me, but I would never tell you to change: I accept and cherish you the way you are, as long as you accept the way you are. If you wish to change I am ready to listen and help you mull it over. But the initiative would have to be always yours.
Plus: in my earlier very profound dialogues with your other reader [with whom I have also corresponded], I got the impression (I can divulge this much, if this helps) that he considers you hugely superior to himself, alone for the reason that you are a famous professor with “a bunch of doctor titles” and he is just a rough and tough biker dude. Of course, you and I both agree that he is a smart and sensitive guy who did a whole lot of great things for others, so he should not feel inferior to eggheads, but he does. Once he sent me some of his stories and they were fantastic and lively, full of energy, and I said they would be well suited as comic book stories, with the appropriate sound effects in bubbles (POUF, PLAK, ZISS). I think comic books are a fantastic genre, with fast dialogues and great dynamics. But he must have thought comic books were for stupid, uneducated people and once he remarked something to the effect about you: “Why would the rabbi be interested in the comic book writer?” or some such, which aptly demonstrates how he feels about you: huge reverence for you and little esteem for himself (this remark is on your blog in WordPress, so it is public). This is one more reason why I would not overwhelm him with such a forceful answer. It would possibly just reinforce his own demons, the way he thinks of himself.
Naturally, I am not telling you what to do ;>)))). But, despite my own quitting communicating with [your other reader (for I tend to get slightly PTSD about such levels of aggression as his, even if they are not directed at me) I feel suddenly protective of him and also you. You are uniquely brilliant: you do not need to go into any offensive.
The friend whom I addressed did not evidently regard my email as offensive. He wrote:
That was a delightful surprise. A philosophy professor’s take on who I am! I am feeling the love, HA. Thankyou -a lot- for that.
And to a large extent I agree. ‘Course not the belligerent part! (which only serves to prove your point.). I am a romantic, I admit. An idealist romantic, to boot. But I think we are a dying breed, we idealists. But not extinct. We could use a few more.
And I am 100% wedded to Sally in this epic romance that is as much a journey as a love affair, as much an education as a comfort, as much a mystery as a partnership.
Thanks for taking the time to look and the extra time to comment. It is that kind of recognition and acknowledgment I respect. Acknowledgement of who I am now. It is that kind of recognition that inspires me. To what, exactly, I do not know but, you are right, it at least gives a second wind to rejoining the battle.
I do battle. Maybe too much but somebody has to do it.
Mind you, the battle-rage is abating with age. Not the causes for the rage (they seem to be increasing and ever more glaring in their proliferation and ugliness) but, rather, my ability to wage effectively against them. Thus, the retreat.
Read Dylan Thomas, eh?
I will. No sense in having a mentor if you do not do as advised. No sense in going to a doctor if you ignore their advice.
And, you are right again. I am uncomfortable with Xmas. I avoid it as much as possible. Feels phony to me. In fact, most rituals, scheduled celebrations and obligatory attendance events feel phony to me. I do not even like parties!
But I love intimate dinner parties where REAL communication ensues, real warmth exuded, and personal connections are made or strengthened.
I’ll give you this: it is hard to shake the past even when the past was indicative of little. The past still looms for me. I didn’t like it. I suppose even acknowledging THAT is part of what you are saying.
Thanks again for writing that.