The Dance Macabre

I received three communications directly or indirectly concerning Israel’s Yom HaZikaron or Memorial Day. The only direct one follows and is self-explanatory:

ONE

Greetings from Jerusalem. We are here witnessing what Yom HaZikaron really means to Israelis. Spending yesterday at Mount Herzl and being there with so many young Israelis paying a tribute to those who have died on behalf of Israel, has been a very emotional experience for both of us, myself and my wife. It shall and must be shared with our young diaspora generation in Canada and the States. Seeing, feeling the pain of parents, family members and an entire nation can be only understood when you hold the moment close to your heart as your hand is reaching to touch and feel and to understand.

I am very much honoured to be part of this Israeli’s Memorial Day and experience the indescribable true spirit of the nation.

TWO

The second communication was oral. Like the third, it was a response to the film Foxtrot. This reader of my blog went to see the film even though I had indicated that I was not recommending readers see the movie. She did see it and walked out two-thirds through. But the reason was very different than the source of my advice. I did not want to recommend that the movie be seen because I found the emotional tearing to be just so great in the depiction of how parents feel about the loss of their son in the IDF. This took place in the first and third acts. My reader responded to the second act. (SPOILER ALERT!)

In that act, four Palestinians in a car are inadvertently killed by gunfire from Israeli soldiers. Under their commander’s orders, an excavation machine is brought to this remote and desolate army checkpoint, a large whole is dug and the whole car with the four dead young people inside is buried and the earth scraped back over the hole.

My reader left because what she saw on the screen was a calumny aimed at the Israeli army. She knew the Israeli army would never do anything like that. She thought that this act of the movie would only serve anti-Israel propaganda.

I agreed with her than many if not most viewers would interpret Act II literally instead of as a hyperbolic metaphor for Israel engaging in a cover-up concerning the effects of the occupation on the soul of Israel. Nevertheless, I defended the right of an artist to engage in poetic licence in such surrealist writing and dramatization. My reader remained unconvinced.

THREE

A third reader saw the film, read my review and wrote his own brilliant analysis of the symbolic meaning of the film. He, too, was jarred by the second act, but for very different reasons than myself or my other reader. As he writes, “Act two is a variation on the theme of the fog and chaos of war that does not work for me.” (AGAIN, FULL SPOILER ALERT!) With minor edits, that feedback follows:

At the end of your review of the film, Foxtrot, you invited comments. Here are a few thoughts.

We are glad we went to see the film. We are also glad that none of our friends joined us. It is a difficult film to watch, particularly as a parent, as you indicated.

In your review, you emphasized the metaphor of the foxtrot dance. I am not a dancer and had to look up foxtrot on wiki. A foxtrot was a dance which minimized the chance of inadvertent physical contact. The foxtrot was respectable in earlier days. As such, the foxtrot was the anti-tango.

Who was dancing the foxtrot in the film? I would suggest that, in the first act where the parents receive the news of the fate of their son, the dance is between the young soldier’s family and the bureaucratic apparatus of the state. The agents of the state are trying to be empathetic in the synthetic manner of civil servants who are just doing their job. If they do not know the answer to a question, they say it is not in their job description to know. Beware of clergy and, in particular, chaplains who are working from a manual of administration and related policy directives. In this dance, the civil servants do not do a good job of respecting physical boundaries.

As I recall, they inject a drug into the mother who had fainted without first asking consent of the husband or advising him of the action they are taking. They push the father to drink water and fiddle with his cell phone, without permission, to prompt him to hydrate himself every hour. Has he been medicated too? Water appears to be another important recurring metaphor in the film. In the first act, it is restorative and helps one regain equilibrium.

In the second act, the soldiers know the word foxtrot from the international phonetic alphabet for radio communications: alpha, bravo, charlie, delta, echo, foxtrot, etc. One of them casually mentions that foxtrot is also a dance. There is a scene where a soldier does a little dance on the roadway. I would suggest, however, that the real dance in the second act is between the soldiers manning the checkpoint and the travellers on the road. Each group is careful not to touch the other. That dance changes when a beer can rolls onto the dance floor.

There is a lot of water imagery in the second act. Although the soldiers are in the desert, water appears to be a threat to them or at least a significant nuisance. They slog through pooled water by their makeshift encampment; the metal box in which they live is slowly sinking into the waterlogged ground. They do not appear to be stationed in a life-giving oasis. Water adversely affects their work. There is a storm one night when they check the documents of the couple whom they compel to wait outside their vehicle in the downpour. The abundance of unwanted water makes the desert setting surreal. (my italics)

The camel, itself a water symbol, ambles through the checkpoint from time to time and reinforces the impression that the desert is an unreal place. It is ridiculous to see the barricade be raised and lowered each time to let it pass. Of all the travellers through the checkpoint, the camel also turns out to be the dance partner who was, literally, the only real threat on the road. The other dance partners are pretty well indistinguishable from the soldiers. The various occupants in the vehicles they stop do not dress in ethnically different or identifiable ways. One merchant appears to be carrying a load of garish toys. A robotic toy soldier is left behind to goose step on the highway until it falls over by itself still kicking. Every detail in the second act reinforces the feeling that the desert checkpoint is surreal. (my italics)

In the third act, I would suggest that the dance is between the father and mother of the soldier. At the outset of the act, they are beyond the touching stage. They are not living together. They are still parents, together. They reminisce. The father mentions a couple of times that he was the happiest when they were living by the sea in earlier times. In the third act, water is again a positive, life-affirming image. Although grounded in bitter reality, they are unable to agree on the ultimate meaning of their son’s last sketch from the desert. They are entering a softer reality of individual projected thoughts helped along by a bottle of wine and their son’s stash. Still, the parents’ dance is the only one of the three that conveys hope. The last dance represents more than just the movements of people who are playing out their roles – and represents more than a formal social dance between hostile strangers.

So, should one applaud after the music finally stops?

Act one suggests that when the dance is real, things get surreal. The very real news of the death of the son is followed by a banal, but also surreal, bureaucratic process. Ultimately, the news becomes unreal too. I would have clapped my hands after the first dance.

Act two suggests that when the dance is surreal, very real things can happen. The need for a barricade and dance of inspection in the middle of a wet spot in the desert appears bizarre. The reality is, however, that death wants to cut in and dance too. Act two is a variation on the theme of the fog and chaos of war that does not work for me. I would have refrained from clapping after the second dance.

Act three suggests that one can dance by the sea at sunset with the one who used to love you. I would not clap after this dance either unless it was in a Hollywood musical.

Regardless, in my opinion, Foxtrot does work as a sum of its parts. As I mentioned at the outset, I am glad that we went out in the ice storm to see the movie. lt is just difficult to know to whom to recommend this film.

A FOURTH ACT OR AFTERWORD

First, as a foreword, I offer a brief, and possibly controversial, potted history of indulgences that at first may appear totally unrelated and even far-fetched. The institution developed over two successive and distinct phases, with a number of mutations within each phase during the Middle Ages. The practice continues into the present. For example, almost ten years ago, the Apostolic Penitentiary issued a decree granting indulgences to those who undertook a pilgrimage during the Pauline Year to the Basilica of Saint John outside the Roman walls.

Indulgences were instituted to relieve parishioners of penances. The first phase of their development began with the Crusades and the wars between Christendom and the advancing militant Muslim faith. The Muslims had a clear psychological advantage in their war with the Christians. If one of their warriors died in battle for their faith, they were considered martyrs and guaranteed a place in heaven. In contrast, Christian soldiers who died in battle without confessing and receiving the final rites, not only lacked such a guarantee, they went to purgatory. You can readily see why this posed a morale problem for the Christian armed forces.

The Pope issued a decree which said that any soldier who died in battle for the Christian cause had acted as if he had confessed his sins and would be automatically forgiven without any formal proceeding. The initiative, though welcomed by soldiers, was also greeted by widespread criticism. What about the wounded? What about those permanently handicapped? What about those who lost legs or arms or their very wits? Why should they not be blessed with an indulgence? In response to the criticism, the application was broadened. During the First Crusade in 1099, Pope Urban II expanded the scope even further and remitted all ecclesiastical penance for any armed pilgrim setting off for the Holy Land.

Many civilians who went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land were also martyred by “terrorists.” The application was broadened again. Many Christians lacked the strength or the ability to fight. They were handicapped in some way. For many Christians, the hardships of life, the risks to the flesh and the punishment for sins, were far more onerous than anything that happened to a Christian going to war. The application of the first type of indulgence was changed again. First extended to civilians martyred on the crusades, it was extended to those who were, for some reason, unable to volunteer in the Christian struggle against Islam and paid for a proxy to go to war on his behalf. Thus, did the Indulgence of the Cross mutate into a form that not only raised morale in the religious wars, but raised a good part of the money needed to fight those battles.

The Crusades ended. But the taxation system in the church had come to rely heavily on indulgences as a source of funds. Further, the Church had changed its focus and shifted its energies to building the enormous ornate cathedrals of the Middle Ages. The development of the Indulgence was now detached from the Crusades. You could earn an indulgence by making a pilgrimage to Rome every hundred years; the Jubilee Indulgence.

The Church, however, ran through the money raised for the centenary in only 23 years. The application was changed again. The Church instituted a pilgrimage every 25 years instead of every 100. This Jubilee Indulgence was once again modified to allow it to be a reward for pilgrimages to a myriad of sacred sites and institutions. Soon, one could buy oneself out of or limit the effects of punishment in purgatory for indulgences could be earned in return for purchase of a “sacred” trinket or even for a donation to a “good cause.” As Martin Luther charged, the Church had become corrupt to its core in the process of raising funds to erect its great edifices.

Initially, the 95 theses that Martin Luther had nailed on the church door in Wittenberg was simply an academic disputation. Such was the case when Martin Luther first traveled outside Wittenberg to Heidelberg on 25 April 1518 to defend his theses before the German General Chapter of the Augustine monks. There was no scandal. There were no protests. It was simply another theological academic debate. However, half way between the six months between the event in Heidelberg and those in Augsburg, a momentous event took place that had nothing to do with intellectual debate and everything to do with political hysteria.

But first Augsburg. Last year, Augsburg, Germany, marked its 500th anniversary. Far from being a remote outpost in the desert, Augsburg was central to the Reformation. Many historians argue that the long religious war in Europe between Catholic and Protestant began in Augsburg rather than Wittenberg. In contrast to the proceedings in Heidelberg, Martin Luther was summoned to the free imperial city of Augsburg by the Cardinal and papal legate, Cajetan, to face charges of heresy. In the papal trial for heresy between 7-20 October 1518, Luther refused to deny his Theses as demanded by Cajetan. Luther instead challenged the morality of indulgences and questioned the Pope’s authority.

This moment is very famous in history. Between Heidelberg and Augsburg, a far less well-known event took place in July 1518 in the free city of Strasbourg where grain and grapes met in an economic marriage. The event was the Dancing Epidemic. In that communal psychosis, 400 people in the end participated in day and night dancing so that many, exhausted and dehydrated, died from the strenuous exercise. This was not, as widely conveyed at the time, a punishment from God, but was the culmination of built-in resentments developed over years at the penury of the peasantry and the gerrymandering and restrictions of electors in a period of weather turmoil. Freezing rains in April followed by a scorching summer of drought alternating with torrential rains ruined crops and possibly resulted in new fungal diseases, associated with LSD, that infected the local crops. (CF. Carlos Bracero, “The 1518 Plague of Strasbourg: A Dancing Fever,” 2013) Ergot poisoning from moldy rye seeds was a possible initiating event. Alternatively, encephalopathy associated with streptococcal infection- Sydenham’s chorea – was another possible health issue among young people that could have set off the craze.

While canons, monks and nuns lived in luxury and paid neither taxes nor with their lives to defend the city – very similar to the position of the plutocrats of today – Martin Luther’s 95 theses had set the downtrodden masses on fire to express their outrage at the Church in wild and frenzied physical displays. This hysterical mania followed from earlier greater restrictions on and repressions of the working class and, when some planned a revolt, the participants were beheaded and hung for high treason. The madness of the masses now threatened to disrupt the whole social order and the political leadership responded with new forms of indulgences – opening community centres and outdoor sites to hopefully contain the frenzy.

No more polite and controlled dancing, but a wild frenzy would adumbrate the widespread revolt against the Church set off by the events at Augsburg. In the wild dance of the soldier on that barren outpost in the desert in Foxtrot, is Samuel Maoz being prescient about the outcome of the mad and seemingly unprecedented times through which we are passing? Does the metaphor of the dance have even more political and social significance than my reader brilliantly pointed out in the film?

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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