A Potpourri: On Jewish Aliens, Populism and Intellectuals

A Potpourri: On Jewish Aliens, Populism and Intellectuals

by

Howard Adelman

One of the joys of writing my blog is the responses of readers. Many are insightful and even brilliant. Others are informative. Some are more interesting than my originals. Of the many I receive, a small assorted selection, though incongruous, offers a mixture of very recent comments by readers of my blog that offer a very complementary blend suitable to bring forth a sweet new year.

Flowers (Spoiler Alert – best read after seeing The Shape of Water)

 “One way to look at a sci-fi or horror film is to try to identify who is the Jew. The mute girl, Elisa’s first name is a variant of Elisha who was a prophet who performed miracles of healing. Her last name, Esposito, is not from the Hebrew. It is from the Latin and means an outsider or, more interestingly, a foundling. In the film, we learn that Elisa was found beside a river and that she had neck wounds which rendered her mute. Is there is a gender reversal theme in the film? Elisa may be a faint echo of Moses. He was rescued from the river and grew up to have a speech impediment.

Usually, it is the monster in a sci-fi or horror film who represents the Jew – the misunderstood alien or other outsider who is to be feared. In this film, the monster or “Asset”, as he is called, is an amphibian who can live in two worlds. That is very Jewish. The Asset, however, is a problematic Jewish metaphor for me. First, he eats cats and cats are not kosher. More importantly, he has godlike attributes and there is only one G*d. I suppose that it is okay for the Asset to perform miracles, such as hair restoration, which are similar, in kind, to the healing miracles by Elisha the Prophet. It is not okay, for me, that the Asset seemingly performs an act of creation when he tranforms Elisa’s neck scars into gills in order that she could become his consort back home in the river.

The third possible Jewish figure in the film is the scientist at the OCCAM research institute: Dmitri Hofstedtler aka Robert. Hofstedtler could be the name of a Russian Jew. He has sensibilities for life and knowledge not possessed by either his thuggish Russian handlers or by his American boss Strickland, the bigot. The film alludes to a Russian/Jewish connection when Strickland examines the explosive Dmitri used to cause the power failure in the OCCAM complex. Strickland deems it to be of Israeli origin and evidence of a Russian operation. He says something similar to: “The Russians hate the Jews but love their toys.”

I thought that Hofstedtler was the Jew in the film until I read your review, Howard. In your first paragraph, you stated:

‘To my surprise, this movie that I saw last evening is also about recognition, about a mute but not deaf woman, a “princess without a voice” who is as alien to her fellow humans (except one of her fellow cleaning partner, Zelda, played by Octavia Spencer) as the alien amphibian, neither centaur nor satyr, with whom she falls in love.’

I had not pushed the idea of Elisa’s being a Jew as alien far enough. She is the monster not the Asset. She is the one to be reclaimed to her people in the South American river. Why was she abandoned by the river side originally? We do not know. Maybe she was abandoned because she looked like a monster in appearance to her people by accident of birth. Maybe her people damaged her gills so that she could not return to the water world. Maybe her people were threatened as were Moses’ and their abandoning her, presumably on dry land, by the river, was a desperate attempt to let her survive.

Second, you pointed out about the research facility’s being named OCCAM. I had missed that clue which is also a Coenesque joke. The lab is a giant, sprawling, rule bound, and incompetent bureaucracy. Dmitri and Strickland bicker and joust about the proper protocol to be followed in the workplace. Dmitri is not to enter his boss’s office directly without permission, and Strickland is reminded to use the proper honourific “Doctor” when addressing Dmitri. As an aside, the man who is responsible for the facility, General Hoyt. is a reference to the historical General Hoyt Vandenburg who was an early CIA Director.

The clue that you provided is that the Asset is the real Occam of the film. He literally uses his teeth and, more importantly, his claws to make the razor cuts that both startle us and serve to advance the plot. At the end of the film, the combination of his claws and his healing hands appear to open up and restore Elisa’s gills. The Asset may not have been more godlike than a prophet after all. He does not create or transform but merely heals and restores to the original. He is a plot device. The movie is about Elisa.”

Herbs (On the Rise of Populism in Europe)

Populism: The Common People in Modern Politics,

2 November – 14 December 2017, University of Michigan

A Selection from the Program

Populism: The Common People in Modern Politics Populism is a type of politics that some would contend existed as long ago as Ancient Greece and the Roman Republic. In the modern democratic era, populism has become a political style that has emerged in many nations throughout the world. Political figures or mass movements labeled as populist generally claim to champion the ordinary citizen or common people against a powerful elite. The lectures in this series will explore varieties of populism historically and in contemporary politics. European, South American and U. S. populism will receive the most attention. In addition to describing specific features of populism in individual countries, the lectures will attempt to capture the essence of populism, because it is frequently viewed as a concept that is vague and elusive. The very recent outbreaks of populism in the United States (e.g., Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders), Europe (e.g., Le Pen in France), the Brexit Referendum in the United Kingdom, and South America (e.g., Hugo Chavez) will be analyzed and placed within the very long tradition of populist politics.

November 2 DEMOCRACY DISMANTLED: HOW POPULISM IS A PATHWAY TO AUTOCRACY Erica Frantz

Erica Frantz is an Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department at Michigan State University. She studies authoritarian politics, with a focus on democratization, conflict, and development. She has written four books on dictatorships and development, and her work has appeared in multiple academic and policy-oriented journals.

Speaker’s Synopsis: Populism is spreading across the globe. Various causes lie behind the populist upsurge, ranging from increased economic hardship to frustrations with globalization. The consequences are worrisome. Today’s populist wave is paving the way for competitively elected leaders to subtly dismantle their countries’ democratic institutions. This form of transition to dictatorship in which incumbents slowly chip away at constraints on their leadership is also associated with the initiation of personalist rule, the most pernicious form of autocracy. November 9 WHAT POPULISM IS Elizabeth Anderson Elizabeth Anderson is John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies and Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She has taught at UM since 1987, specializing in moral and political philosophy, especially on democratic theory, egalitarianism and its history, and the roles of experts and citizens in democratic policy making. Speaker’s Synopsis: This talk will explain what populism is and trace its origins to tensions in democracy going back to Rousseau. The speaker will show how populism can be either left-wing or right-wing, highlight the characteristic messages of populist leaders, and argue that populism, although cast as a fulfillment of democracy, is a threat to it as well as to sound public policy formation.

November 16 POPULISM AND ONLINE POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS: THE CASE OF NARENDRA MODI Joyojeet Pal

Joyojeet Pal is an Assistant Professor at the School of Information at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His research focuses on the use of technology in the Global South, including accessible technology for people with disabilities and social media use by politicians.

Speaker’s Synopsis: This talk outlines the role of social media in populist electoral campaigns, and highlights the case of the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, whose 2014 general election victory was aided by a very effective social media presence. This talk examines strategies of political attack, innuendo, and personal insult in online political speech. Populism: The Common People in Modern Politics Populism is a type of politics that some would contend existed as long ago as Ancient Greece and the Roman Republic. In the modern democratic era, populism has become a political style that has emerged in many nations throughout the world. Political figures or mass movements labeled as populist generally claim to champion the ordinary citizen or common people against a powerful elite. The lectures in this series will explore varieties of populism historically and in contemporary politics. European, South American and U. S. populism will receive the most attention. In addition to describing specific features of populism in individual countries, the lectures will attempt to capture the essence of populism, because it is frequently viewed as a concept that is vague and elusive. The very recent outbreaks of populism in the United States (e.g., Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders), Europe (e.g., Le Pen in France), the Brexit Referendum in the United Kingdom, and South America (e.g., Hugo Chavez) will be analyzed and placed within the very long tradition of populist politics.

November 30 POPULIST POLITICS IN LATIN AMERICA Robert S. Jansen, Ph.D.

Robert Jansen is a comparative-historical sociologist of politics and culture. He is the author of Revolutionizing Repertoires: The Rise of Populist Mobilization in Peru (University of Chicago Press) and has published various articles on Latin American politics in academic journals. After receiving his Ph.D. in sociology from UCLA, he spent three years as a junior fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows. He is currently an assistant professor at the University of Michigan.

Speaker’s Synopsis: Recent political events in the U.S. and Europe have brought renewed attention to the problem of populism. But what exactly are we talking about when we talk about populism? And what do we know about its social and political causes and consequences? This lecture provides some provisional answers to these difficult questions by considering various moments in the political history of Latin America—a region that has long been susceptible to populist mobilization and claims-making.

December 7 THE FUTURE LIES EAST: POSTCOMMUNIST EUROPE’S NEW MODEL OF POPULISM Kevin Deegan-Krause, Ph.D.

Kevin Deegan-Krause, Professor of Political Science, Wayne State University, received his B. A. in Economics and History from Georgetown University and his Ph.D. in Government and International Relations from the University of Notre Dame. His research focus is on political and governmental systems in Central and Eastern Europe. He has authored or co-edited books and journal articles on a variety of political topics. His current research focuses on political party system transformation, populism, and the sources of electoral support for authoritarian leaders.

Speaker’s Synopsis: We have come to associate the word populism with the right in Western Europe and with the left in Latin America, but in Eastern Europe new political movements advance not from the left or the right but from the outside, as dissatisfied citizens rally around non-political celebrities to challenge what they see as a corrupt status quo. As the trend-setter in this new political style, Eastern Europe offers insights into an increasingly widespread variation on populism.

December 14 EUROPEAN POPULISM: SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES WITH THE PAST Andrei S. Markovits

Andrei S. Markovits is the Karl W. Deutsch Collegiate Professor of Comparative Politics and German Studies and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. His many books, articles, and reviews on topics as varied as sports, dog rescue, and many aspects of European and comparative politics have been published in fifteen languages. Markovits has received many prestigious prizes and fellowships. He has also won multiple teaching awards, most notably the Golden Apple Award at the University of Michigan in 2007. In the same year, the University of Lueneburg in Germany awarded Markovits an honorary doctorate. In 2012, the Federal Republic of Germany bestowed on Markovits its Cross of the Order of Merit, First Class, one of the highest honors given by that country to its citizens or foreigners.

Speaker’s Synopsis: In Germany, France, Austria, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Russia, and a number of other European countries, populist movements have appeared in many guises altering these countries’ politics and policies. While sui generis, these constructs have displayed characteristics that are reminiscent of thought decidedly not identical with developments of the 1920s and 1930s. The lecture will highlight the current situation, analyze its causes and manifestations, and look at similarities and differences to events that contributed to a very turbulent history on that continent.

Spices (A warning about the dangers of intellectuals as politicians)

I discovered this author just recently: he was an English Studies professor in Germany, who also wished to found a theatre in Shakespeare’s style in a former pub.  He was found dead in this theatre room (apparently due to hypothermia – he was suffering from Huntington’s and may have not been able to leave the place in time).  He wrote a bestselling novel in 1996, about sexual harassment on campus (Der Campus. Goldmann Taschenbuch, München 1996) that is at the same time hilariously funny and tragic, showing the ugly side of university politics and how such situations are often much more complex than what today’s media hype makes them out to be; an excellent analysis on European anti-Semitism (Das Shylock-Syndrom oder die Dramaturgie der Barbarei. Eichborn, Frankfurt am Main 1997); several books on Shakespeare, and on culture in general; as well, a most interesting book on men (Männer: Eine Spezies wird besichtigt. Eichborn, Frankfurt am Main 2001).  He is funny, but fair, and quite knowledgeable.  He unveils human weaknesses in a Wittgensteinian style, being an insider and at the same time an unbiased meta-observer, with much humour and understanding.  Sadly, not many of his books have been translated into English.  Here is a little sample I translated myself, from his book about men (warning: tongue in cheek, but he means it)

Dietrich Schwanitz: The Intellectual, in Männer: Eine Species wird besichtigt (pp. 169-175)
Translated from the original German
by Bea Sara Goll © 2017

First, we have to clear up an unfortunate misunderstanding:  Even if it seems natural, the concept “intellectual” has very little in common with a superior intellect, just like the Austrian “Genietruppe” [engineer corps] with geniality. Genius used to be an old-fashioned word for engineer. Likewise, “intellectual” does not mean that this person is more intelligent than another; rather it means that such a person makes it his life’s task to publicly ponder societal matters without thereby serving anybody’s interests.  Thus, among intellectuals we find free authors, journalists, commentators, artists, writers, editors, satirists and all those who focus on the state of the entire society. A geology professor who writes only for a small group of experts is not an intellectual, even if his IQ is over 160.  But a professor of the theory of culture whose writing could influence the public’s ability to understand itself is.  An intellectual must be free in order to comment critically on society.  That’s why we used to speak earlier of the liberal professions. Members of this group were the ones to participate in the public discourse.  Their close connection to politics was reflected in the French expression “république des lettres”.  Only a republic allows public discourse.

Society for an intellectual is like the husband for his disillusioned wife: subject to ongoing efforts to reform and to critique.  He cannot let the society go, but wishes it were a different one.  He has a love-hate type obsessive relationship to it.  He must change it, replace it, rebuild it or re-educate it. He must criticise it, reproach it and preach at it.  He disagrees with it, yet he feels like he is its guardian.  He protects the fire that society no longer possesses, in order to rekindle it after society’s rebirth. He is the type that depends on the horde albeit totally unhappy with the one he belongs to.  Thus, he spends his whole life looking for his own tribe.

This is nothing special actually. Most men do the same when they are unhappy with their reference group.  Or they try doing so at least.  If they don’t like their colleagues, they look for another job.  If they cannot stand their friends anymore, they move in another city.  If they want to change the type of group they hang with, they look for a different activity and switch from journalism to politics, and from politics into business.  So everybody is looking for his own horde that suits him.

But to the reformer, the entire society is his group. He cannot exchange it.  There is no alternative. Thus, the reformer wishes to reform society to suit him.  In his mind he changes it so that he can find his ideal place in it.  His societal dreams originate in his wish to find his proper place in the group. In order to accomplish this, however, the group must first learn to see things with his eyes.

Such a type may be an outsider or even a total misfit.  He has a conflict with common values.  He is a critic and an oppositionist.   He appears therefore quite independent.  Perhaps he really is that, in several aspects.  He serves his own grandiosity by regarding the entire society as his group.  Since he, in his phantasies constantly rebuilds the society, he imagines himself as its government.  When he speaks, he develops ideas that could function as a declaration of the government.  When he discusses an issue, you would think he is preparing for a cabinet meeting.  His world is the world itself.  Nothing escapes his attention, be it the issue of global warming or computer supported training.  He could become the president from one minute to the other and he would know what to do.

All else pales in comparison when he goes about his historic mission.  He is like the creator of a new world.  Unbeknownst to himself, he derives his own self-importance through the importance of the issues at hand.  His principles are supported by the weightiness of it all. He represents the interests of the entire humanity.  He feels like a parliamentary representative for the whole world.  That’s why he loves terms with “world” in them: worldwide, world politics, world peace, universal measure, world economics, world population, etc..

Whenever it is about politics, the situation among intellectuals is like in soccer: the clubs create competing teams as opinion clubs. Professional intellectuals only play in the top-level leagues. The ones below them are amateurs.  They all live in a society to which they wish there were an alternative.  Some of them actually call themselves “alternatives”.

To the man who is into a grand historic mission a woman can acquire only a low level and only a temporary importance – mainly when and as long as she strengthens him in his mission.   His focus is on his vision of the ideal group.  In that he is a typical male.  As a representative in the public discourse he represents the sphere of men itself.  He is the living opposition to intimacy.  Every woman who attempts to drag him off the stage of public discourse will be unsuccessful.  This would be akin to cutting him off from the source of his self-love.  She only has two options: give up or play along.

Should he be required to take care of the family or household, he views the individual situation as a universal problem: therefore he cannot do it in small measures.  Is he to find a flat, he will found a whole real estate agency.  Is he to find a placement in a kindergarten, he writes an article about the mistakes in family politics.  Whatever he encounters, he uses as an example in support of the necessity for reform.  If he gets into trouble with his wife or girlfriend, first thing he does is to lecture her about her objective interests vs. her subjective errors.  His actual medium is the debate.  Here he finds himself on familiar territory.  He has led at least eighty-thousand debates in his life so far.  He is well trained and unbeatable.  Not one person has ever encountered the situation in which he would have let himself be convinced or persuaded by another.  The more amazing is his imperturbable belief that he in turn could convince another.  Then again, it has been often observed that his opponents became exhausted, frustrated, and flew.  But for him to change his opinion – no, nobody has ever witnessed that.

Before a woman wishes to share her life with an intellectual she should know: the debate will continue lifelong.   If she has problems with taking it for 45 minutes, let alone for three days, she should give up right away.  Otherwise, in three weeks she will be exhausted, after three months she will tune out, and after three years, she will flee.  Or, she will learn to hate his never-ending debate.  When he announces his theses in company, she will smile contemptuously to let everybody know that she has already heard these ideas four hundred times.  Or she will deliver a direct put-down:   She will say: “Let him talk” meaning: “totally worthless”.  And she will indicate that she views all that talk as a form of impotence and that she secretly lusts for a man with action.  She will see through all his phantasies of grandeur, and even more despise him for them.  And since he is too busy dealing with the election reform to notice this, she will increase the dosage until all their friends notice it, except for him.

But if someone wants to sign up for lifelong debates, she should know a few things about the debating style.  The intellectual claims, based on his own social theory, that the opinions of an opponent are not valid, they are just a cover-up for his dark intentions.  So, he refutes an argument never in the context in which it was developed, instead, he considers it as a totally different idea. And then shoots it down.  If someone does not know this and does not know the rules of the game, she will soon become extremely frustrated.  While the opponent has made a lot of effort to work out the argument that lead to the conclusion – the intellectual does not listen to her at all.  It is like the Maginot-Line of the French.  All engineering effort had been fully in vain when the enemy found a way around it.  If however one understands the strategies, the debate might be quite enjoyable which improves the relationship as well; though she will never convince him.  But it is not at all about convincing anyway.  It is more likely that she will impress him. She will be respected by him.  He will even become aware of her existence. Since the art of the debate functions like a sensory organ, he will see her much better.

She will succeed in achieving this more often, the more she beats him in the debate.  But such will rarely happen through a simple confrontation.  He will have set up his arguments already from the start in such a way that whoever holds the opposite opinion will encounter defeat.   Much better she deploys the famous three-step method: sidestep-analogy-moral discrediting.  The whole thing is like a swift fight move to shove the opponent into the morass of becoming morally discredited.   Such morasses are clearly marked on the maps of morality.  The intellectual also knows where these are and will try to avoid them.  The art of warfare is in the surprise of suddenly driving him into the morass when he least expects it.

For example, the intellectual says: “This pompous academic style is abominable. Nobody gets it: it is like Chinese.  Why do they have to use so many foreign terms? Why cannot they write in proper English?”

This statement is a multi-tasker.  In a talk-show it would get applause.  It is safely removed from the moral morass.   But watch: here come the side-step and the analogy: “He who is against foreign terms, is also against foreigners!”  You should see how fast the intellectual will disintegrate here.  Nobody would want to be in the company of the enemy of foreigners.  And then you move in for the kill: “Foreign terms are the Muslims of language!”  One more side-step and you can portray him as a neo-Nazi, a hater of foreigners, wishing to perform a veritable ethnic cleansing in exterminating all foreign terms from the language – while he was merely arguing for a more comprehensible style.  So is the art of debate among intellectuals.

One recognizes a couple where he is the intellectual based on the way how he distributes the responsibility for decision making.  He makes the really important decisions, for example the proper attitude about nuclear energy or about the Third World.   She decides about the unimportant details such as school, home or money.  This is the way the couple shares what is close by and what is afar.

While she is wondering why he cares so much about the overpopulation in India instead of taking care of the broken tap in the bathroom, he does not understand why she does not get this.  The broken tap is not something about which one can make himself look great.  He needs a grand stage for that.  One ought to get the UNESCO involved! In his mind he is already giving a lecture in front of the United Nations.  He is rehearsing in front of his wife.  She does not want to listen? So, then he will go over to Brigitte next door.  Though she is only a sales clerk, she is interested in such things.  The bathroom tap?  What am I, a plumber? She should call the trades.  I have more important things to care about.  Like the population explosion on the Indian subcontinent.  If we are not careful… Brigitte, I worry about the population explosion on the Indian subcontinent.  Have you read the article?  No? Come, I’ll explain it to you…

The media feeds the intellectual with a daily provision of news, about which one can opine.   The media connects him with his imaginary stage, the world.  The media maintains his phantasy room daily where he appears in the parliament, reads the Levites to the government, impeaches the president and reduces the taxes.  Here he receives foreign diplomats, finds the right words to greet them and governs for the good of the country and the entire planetary circle.  The media enable him to turn his back to the narrow domesticity of his home, and reach for the skies in his mind.

Then his girlfriend notices his strangely vacant gaze.  She has no idea that just this moment he is participating in the cabinet meeting advising the minister.
 

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The Shape of Water – a movie review

The Shape of Water – a movie review

by

Howard Adelman

When I wrote my last blog on last week’s Torah portion, I said that the parshah was about recognition. To my surprise, this movie that I saw last evening is also about recognition, about a mute but not deaf woman, a “princess without a voice” who is as alien to her fellow humans (except one of her fellow cleaning partner, Zelda, played by Octavia Spencer) as the alien amphibian, neither centaur nor satyr, with whom she falls in love. It is also about the loneliness of the Josephs of this world who not only interpret dreams, but live their lives in a semi-permanent dreamy state.

This movie is La La Land on LSD, a paean to the power and magic of movies and dreams over the rational, the manipulative and controlling powers that be. Recall the lyrics of The Fools Who Dream:

My aunt used to live in Paris

I remember, she used to come home and tell us

stories about being abroad and

I remember that she told us she jumped in the river once

Barefoot

She smiled

Leapt, without looking

And She tumbled into the Seine!

The water was freezing

she spent a month sneezing

but said she would do it, again

Here’s to the ones who dream

Foolish, as they may seem

Here’s to the hearts that ache

Here’s to the mess we make

She captured a feeling

Sky with no ceiling

Sunset inside a frame

She lived in her liquor

and died with a flicker

I’ll always remember the flame

Here’s to the ones who dream

Foolish, as they may seem

Here’s to the hearts that ache

Here’s to the mess we make

She told me:

A bit of madness is key

to give us new colors to see

Who knows where it will lead us?

And that’s why they need us.

So bring on the rebels

The ripples from pebbles

The painters, and poets, and plays

And here’s to the fools

who dream

Crazy, as they may seem

Here’s to the hearts that break

Here’s to the mess we make

I trace it all back

to then

Her, and the snow, and the Seine

Smiling through it

She said

She’d do it, again.

 

This a fusion film of a potpourri of modes – farce and melodrama, tragedy and comedy, horror (think Creature from the Black Lagoon) and cold war spy thriller (think of The Manchurian Candidate and its story of cold war conspiracies), cartoon-coloured amid the predominant film noir bleakness, a movie about a gaggle of inept misfits and a coldblooded (literally) square-jawed professional CIA agent with an electric cattle prod, “an Alabama howdy-doo,” that sparks memories of the sheriffs in the deep south reinforced when we catch a glimpse of news on the TV. But most of all, it is a romance and an alien movie for adults, a very different version of Beauty and the Beast, for the maiden is far from a beauty on the outside, but, on the inside, this Chaplinesque heroine has a heart of pure gold.

Sally Hawkins, who plays Elisa Esposito, lives a lonely life with a gay next-door neighbour Giles, played by Richard Jenkins. Appropriately enough, both live above a dying movie theatre where together they watch romantic musicals on TV. But this is a feminist age. Elisa is not only lost in her dreams; she is both resourceful and courageous, calculating and down to earth. She masturbates in her bathtub every morning to an egg timer. She lives in Baltimore and never jumped into the Seine. But on a cold rainy night, she ends up in the Patapsco River.

The cameo on homophobia and racism in the second diner scene may be viewed as odd, but it fits in – if only because everything in the film is odd. Guillermo del Toro, who wrote and directed Pan’s Labyrinth, wrote, produced and directed this romantic fairy tale set in Baltimore in the early sixties at the time of the struggles against Jim Crow in the southern U.S. The movie is as relevant today as it was more than fifty years ago, even though “the times they are a changing.”

It is a film of beauty and pluck, of dark shadows and pastel coloured daylight. Reality is said to be the domain of rules and responsibilities in a crabbed and paranoid world, but the authentic realism belongs to the dreamers whose imaginations sore beyond the narrow strictures that could suffocate us all. For it is the primal and animalistic married to grace rather than gravity, wed to the sensual rather than the intellectual, that offers salvation. The enemy of beauty, the enemy of dreams, the enemy of the imagination turns out to be Occam’s Razor, for OCCAM is the name of the massive and secretive spy complex where the CIA agent worked. (Look for the huge sign on the front of the complex.)

Occam’s razor was a principle penned by an English Franciscan philosopher in the fourteenth century who insisted that simplicity was to be preferred in understanding the world to complexity. This movie turns Occam’s razor on its head and insists that complex realities are far more important than simplistic theories; the imagination is richer than uncomplicated but dogmatic heuristic guides.

Heraclitus wrote that we cannot step into the same river twice. Everything changes. But that does not mean we should not leap into it once, that we should not embrace change and difference rather than marry the stolid and the solid. In this movie, the devil is the CIA agent, Strickland, played wonderfully and menacingly, but comically, by Michael Shannon, while the divine role goes to the amphibian creature from the Amazon played by Doug Jones. Of course, the latter, like Jesus, can heal wounds with his touch – and even grow hair.

Here’s to the ones who dream

Foolish, as they may seem

Here’s to the hearts that ache

Here’s to the mess we make.

 

The Square – a movie review

The Square – a Movie Review

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday, because of vociferous urging by our youngest son, we finally broke the bad habit we had slipped into of not going to the theatre to see movies. We saw the Swedish film, The Square. The film was the first Swedish film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year and swept the European Film Awards with six wins in all the categories for which it was nominated – Best European Film, Best Comedy, Best Script, Best Director (Ruben Östland), Best Actor (Claes Bang) and Best Production Design (Josefin Asberg). I thought that it was one of the very best films that I had ever seen.

Yet no other star in the film, such as Dominic West and Elisabeth Moss, was nominated for an award. In the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Critics Choice Awards representing 300 critics, and said to be the best predictor of Academy Award winners, the film received only one nomination, for best foreign film. There were 17 films nominated for more than one award ahead of it, only one of which I had seen, a terrific film directed by Dee Rees called Mudbound. But the latter did not even get one nomination. The Square was also nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, an almost sure thing if it is selected for predicting the winner of the Academy Awards Best Foreign Film Category.

Given that record, how can I insist that The Square is one of the best, not just foreign films, but one of the best films that I have ever seen? Further, for this year’s nominations in both the Critics Choice Awards and the Golden Globes, though almost all the films nominated are on my list of must see movies, I have viewed virtually none of the top ranked films. How can I be trusted to rank what is “best” when I have not seen the vast majority of the nominations? That is the cost of getting out of the habit of going to see films in movie theatres. I lose status and credibility as a film commentator. Look at the magnificent list ignoring for the moment possible errors in the compilation:

Film                                                               Nominated

Critics Choice Awards             Golden Globes

The * indicates the films that I have seen.

The Shape of Water                  14                                         7

The Post                                        8                                         6

Three Billboards Outside

         Ebbing, Missouri                 6                                        6

Lady Bird                                       8                                        4

Call Me By Your Name                 8                                        3

The Greatest Showman                                                          3

I Tonya                                            5                                        3

Battle of the Sexes                         2                                        2

Coco                                                 2                                        2

The Disaster Artist                        1                                        2

Ferdinand                                        0                                        2

Get Out                                            5                                         2

Molly’s Game                                  0                                        2

*Mudbound                                     2                                        2

Phantom Thread                            3                                        2

All the Money in the World          0                                        1

*The Florida Project                      1

Churchill                                         0

Darkest Hour                                  1

Dunkirk                                           8

Blade Runner 2049                        7

The Big Sick                                    6

Phantom Thread                            1

*Logan                                             1

Downsizing                                     1

Thelma                                            1

A Fantastic Woman                      1

BPM (Beats Per Minute)              1

There are four other films Submitted for Oscars for Best Foreign Film that I have also not seen: In the Fade (Fatih Akin – Germany), Loveless (Andrey Zvyagintsev – Russia), First They Killed My Father* (Angelina Jolie – Cambodia) and A Fantastic Woman (Sebastíán Lelio – Chile).

Further, if I can throw more distrust your way about my commentary, when it comes to assessing the character and content of the film, I, as you will see, seem also to be off base. The film is advertised as a critique of postmodern art and postmodernism in general. It is that, but only in a minor key. A judge for an award said: “This is an intelligent, subtle and funny film that raises important issues: how to help the poor, how to deal with the media and attract them by creating a shock factor. And I also fell for the lead actor!”

The film is subtle, sometimes uproariously but also mordantly funny, and Claes Bang is both terrific and handsome as the lead actor, but for me it was a horror film. Further, though it dealt with a number of themes, including the tension between art for its own sake and the marketing of that art, it provided no help as a how-to-do-it film about dealing with the poor, the media or, for that matter, minorities, the opposite gender, sexual harassment, and a number of other topical issues. The Square is not a message film. It is a comment certainly on what is bad, but offered no hint about the good, only dilemmas, such as choosing between free speech versus sensitivity to others.

The Cannes jury president, none other than Pedro Almodóvar, described the movie as follows: “The film looks at the dictatorship of political correctness. It offers several examples of this. It is a very funny film, the actors are excellent and we considered giving the lead actor a Best Actor Award.” All of this is true. But none of it touches the greatness of the film. Even Ruben Östland’s comment that he tried to make a movie that tackled serious subjects but was also entertaining goes nowhere near the significance of the movie. Perhaps he was being modest. Perhaps he did not truly recognize the greatness of his art.

I am not going to write about the acting – which was terrific – nor the long takes and crisp cuts of the cinematography, a superb script capturing both everyday speech and highfalutin nonsense, the brilliant score and alternating background harsh noises, or the major and minor plot lines woven through the film. I will write only about the theme, a bonus since I will not introduce any spoilers.

Except for one. But it takes place in the first minute as an opening prologue to the film. The director comments on how he came to make the film by, with a friend and colleague, imagining that they could create a safe space where people can meet and not only not be harmed, but protected by others. Just as a crosswalk provides a safe place where pedestrians can cross a road and cars will respect (largely) the social contract that allows the space to function for its intended purpose, they envisioned creating a square with an inscription that declares the marked-off square to be a place of trust and caring: people passing would be encouraged to offer protection rather than to be indifferent to someone being victimized or simply in need of help.

This suggests a very large vision, and, as I shall soon indicate, a paradoxical problem at the centre of all the themes raised. In the film, “The Square” is the name of a contemporary art piece installed in front of a famous museum of modern art in the capital of Sweden, Stockholm. “The Square is made up of square stone blocks very little different from the rest of the plaza in which it is installed, except it is bounded by a continuous white light band with a bronze plaque defining the nature of the space.

But this is the paradox – a boundaried space that is safe and protective for everyone within that defined square but is extremely dangerous for those outside the boundaries. The Chinese monster film, The Great Wall with Matt Damon and directed by Zhang Yimou makes that point. But the square does more than a wall. For the boundary marks off trust inside and distrust outside, safety inside and high risk outside, caring for one another inside and indifference outside, high civilization inside and barbarism outside. Further, the space is very small relative to the vastness of the occasions for risk, danger, physical harm and social shame.

To make that point, the author dreams up a number of relatively trivial incidents set off by a scam asking for help, but turning into the obverse, victimizing the one offering help then followed like a repeating pistol directly or indirectly set off by the repercussions of the first act. Once civilization is displaced by chaos, it is very difficult to put the genie of chaos back into the bottle. Every effort to atone for the initial failure by owning up only bounces back to victimize the “liberal” bleeding heart once again.

Of course, this is about daily life where on street corners and outside grocery and drug stores we are asked for funds and cannot escape the trap of victimizing the helper of goodwill because of the daily spam messages we receive in our email, with all of the misspelling and grammar errors, reflecting either a poor education in English or a deliberate effort to sound authentic.

“Forgive my indignation if this message comes to you as a surprise and may offend your personality for contacting you without your prior consent and writing through this channel.

“I came across your name and contact on the course of my personal searching when i was searching for a foreign reliable partner. I was assured of your capability and reliability after going true your profile.

“I’m (Miss. Sandra) from Benghazi libya, My father of blessed memory by name late General Abdel Fattah Younes who was shot death by Islamist-linked militia within the anti-Gaddafi forces on 28th July, 2011 and after two days later my mother with my two brothers was killed one early morning by the rebels as result of civil war that is going on in my country Libya, then after the burial of my parents, my uncles conspired and sold my father’s properties and left nothing for me. On a faithful morning, I opened my father’s briefcase and discover a document which he has deposited ($6.250M USD) in a bank in a Turkish Bank which has a small branch in Canada with my name as the legitimate/next of kin. Meanwhile i have located the bank,and have also discussed the possiblity of transfering the fund. My father left a clause to the bank that i must introduce a trusted foreign partner who would be my trustee to help me invest this fund; hence the need for your assistance,i request that you be my trustee and assist me in e

“You will also be responsible for the investment and management of the fund for me and also you will help me get a good school where i will further my education.
I agreed to give you 40% of the $6.250M once the transfer is done. this is my true life story, I will be glad to receive your respond soonest for more details to enable us start and champion the transfer less than 14 banking days as i was informed by the bank manager.

“Thanks for giving me your attention,

“Yours sincerely,
Miss. Sandra Younes”

Of course, the movie is about postmodernism in general and postmodern art in particular. The most horrific but also most hilarious scene is one of pasty-white Swedes dressed to the nines at a formal luxury dinner of donors to the museum. A performance artist for the delight and the enlightenment of the audience is on offer as a prelude to the dinner. They had clearly not understood the meaning of the boundaries of the square described at the prelude to the movie, for as soon as one strays outside or invites the primitive within, the very thin patina of civilized behaviour is put at grave risk. Is that reality or merely a reflection and projection of their own fears?

The simplicity, the repetitions and variations of the different sketches all loosely tied together by the main plot, are all exaggerated by the cinematography that stresses minimalism and alternates between long shots and close ups – the most horrifying perhaps than even the dinner, the scene of sweaty but emotionless and vacant sex. Order is a chimera. The greater reality is of chaos and the principle that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can send waves that disturb the order in a radically different realm. In this one, the disturbances come from the suburban Swedish equivalents to the Parisian banlieues. Modernism is about order and predictability. In art, Jackson Pollock destroyed the reign even of minimalism’s focus on line and colour and shape and opened the door to performance art and the mounds of earth and gravel piled up like well-ordered rows of pyramids in an art gallery.

As babies disturb conference meetings, as chimpanzees are owned as pets in one’s apartment, as children accompany dad to work, as the boundaries between work and home, between privacy and the public world, between what is liberal that morphs into a strain a fascism, all break down, as the line between the lecture and the press conference, between a detached objectivity in art and an involved and engaged subjectivity, between using words and images for communication and their use for arousal of fundamental passions in order to gain the attention of a very jaundiced audience, all break down, as borders are traversed, crossed and they disintegrate like the continuous strain of sound of demolishing structures in the background sound track, we are all put at risk.

At the base, there is the breakdown of the boundary between art and science, between subjective expression and empathetic involvement, between subjectivity and objectivity. The Swedes are the embodiment on this globe of the latter that percolated into an ethics of engagement and commitment that meant a higher percentage of refugees relative to the existing population than even in Germany were allowed entry through the new humanitarian sieve of aid to refugees. There could be no better place to locate such a movie.

It is expressed in the effusive and tangled apologetics for concept art that itself questions the idea of art framed in a boundaried space and in a boundaried place like an art gallery, that even makes a claim that art itself is the expression of the destruction of boundaries even when the main piece of art on display is a simple boundaried two-dimensional plane of supposed safety and security, but which erupts like a volcano out of nowhere into three-dimensional so-called reality. It may have been science that let chaos out of its cage, but it becomes the duty of art to put it on display in all its wondrous glory. How do you do it without either adopting a modernist stance of portraying it all with a camera detached and at a distance while engaging the audience’s fears and fantasies?

Chaos theory may have been imported in daily life metaphors to emphasize disruption rather than predictability as the norm, to brand outright lies as the only truth and to make the claim that news organizations aiming at objective truth are the foremost purveyors of “false news,” thereby making room for the coverage of lies to dominate the news cycle. For what is important is not what people say about you, but that they talk about you. Chaos theory in science may emphasize the importance of non-linear connectivity as a foundation for understanding complex behaviour, but art is left with the responsibility of making sense of this detritus.

Hence an art movie that is terribly, literally “terribly” entertaining, while, at the same time, both delivering a profound message and laughing at the message itself. Misunderstandings, misrepresentations, mis-communication all become the “order” of the day in which even the purely scientific idea of chaos theory is turned into garbage as it is translated into so-called art and metaphor and the theory itself is twisted beyond all recognition.

Jean-François Lyotard in chapter 8 of his volume, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, entitled, “Something like: ‘Communication …without communication,” raised the question about communicating to a public a theme that displayed and put on view the atomization of modern society to the point where it became postmodern and it became an absurdity to create art, the subject matter of which was non-communication. Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgement had stated a basic premise of modernist aesthetic theory. Taste is “the faculty of judging what renders our feeling, proceeding from a given representation, universally communicable without the modulation of a concept.” What if there is no way to determine a “given” representation? What if every representation has been modulated to death by concepts? What if the only thing universal is not understanding and not communicating but misunderstanding and non-communication? How then can an artist portray such a situation without him or herself becoming trapped in the square of safety that has now become a centre of chaos and disruption?

In the movie, the real chaos is set in process when the marketing people take control with the categorical imperative of getting people to pay attention to an effort at communicating the essence of the high priest of ethical modernism which dictates that we are all to treat others as an end and not merely a means. We are all commanded to protect and care for one another. But when the ethical end itself explodes in our face because of the effort to communicate the message widely, the creature of chaos has been let out of its cage and barbarism has been permitted entry into the refined sensibilities of the world of high art.

If in my reading of Hegel, we have been taught that we can never escape the dictatorship of concepts that percolate through all our thoughts like a rat infestation. Then there is no ethics that can grasp grace. There is no art that can escape the conceptual, and all art becomes conceptual art. How do we illustrate and represent Christian, the CEO of this modern art museum who is a Christian at heart, how do we portray, represent and communicate a message of brotherly and sisterly love when Christian morality seems to have no place in the world of art, in representation, in communication, and, therefore, in its logical conclusion, in society at all? Everything turns to dust which can then be ordered into regular pyramids in a gallery, line after line, row after row, only to be disturbed and be remade by the cleaning technology of a modern sweeping machine and its operator.

If there is no beauty left as the touch point of art, if beauty has been destroyed as the necessary a priori condition of all art whatsoever, if there is no universal principle behind art and art has become the display of the absence of such a principle, how can we be made to be present in the face of an absence? Why have museums of modern art, let alone museums of postmodern art which undermine the whole role of museums altogether? How can we pretend to have art that is even about a community of feeling, even in a very symmetrical and relatively very small square in front of our museum? If the message is to communicate the absence of communication, the dissolution of a community of empathy, and the theme that we have permitted the barbarians through the gate that protected art, and beauty and goodness as an aristocratic privilege in society, how can that be represented? The lineal and the figurative are all swept up in the dustbin of history by the cleaning staff and their mechanistic monsters that remake art beyond recognition.

For the ultimate question raised in the film is how and where we can give to one another when we are so bereft of the concept of grace, when grace itself cannot be grasped except as an abstract idea rather than a basic emotion, when Christ has become but a name for a postmodern art curator who is at heart a hapless Charlie Chaplin creation? When the immediacy of attachment has been driven off the surface of our planet, how can there even be mediated attachment? When everything becomes the calculation of the marketer, of public relations entailing neither a public nor any relations, but only manipulation, it won’t matter whether we drive an electric car, try fruitlessly to atone for our mistakes or make meagre efforts to contribute to the well-being of the world. Chaos and barbarism have become all the rage.

When we try to define space and a time for safety and security, but the place is here only in this place and only for the moment that it is on display, the here-and-now are essentially lost and there can be no grace – only representation of it as a vanishing cloud of smoke above an explosion. When there is no reality to reference, everything becomes smoke, but only with mirrors that cannot reflect even the smoke, even as it tries in scene after scene to offer variations on that representation. When the sensible, when the apple is an apple is an apple, has been driven from the screen, so too follow the sensitive and the sensible into the fiery storm of sensation. And there is no sublime – only the ridiculous.

 

The Promise – a movie review

The Promise – a movie review

by

Howard Adelman

I am not breaking my summer silence, merely taking a recess. The cause is a movie I saw on television last night called The Promise. It is about the Armenian genocide. If I was a true film aficionado, I would know about the film, whether I had seen it or not. But I not only did not see it when it was released, but I had not heard of it. I initially thought I had an excuse because the release date that I read was 27 May 2017. However, the actual release date in Canada was 21 April 2017. Further, it was at TIFF in 2016. In any case, my lame excuse had been that I went north to my island for the rainy and cold month of June and did not return fully until July.

Before I begin the review, a few, and perhaps too many, words about the Armenian genocide. As is well known, successive and very different Turkish regimes have denied the existence of any intentional slaughter of the up to 1.5 million Armenians killed in that slaughter. The Armenians were killed, the Turks claim, because they allegedly started a civil war. Civilians were killed in the crossfire. They were casualties of war, not deliberately murdered. In any case, the Turks insist, the numbers that died is grossly exaggerated.

They are not. The genocide took place as depicted.

I became a secondary scholar of the Armenian genocide when I was asked by the Toronto School Board to sit with two other academics, experts on the Holocaust, to adjudicate whether the story of the genocide should be included on the curriculum for high school students in Toronto. Deliberately, not one of asked to serve on this voluntary judicial advisory committee because we had published on the Armenian genocide. The Board of Education wanted expertise without offering grounds for the formal Turkish government complaint to subsequently declare a prior bias.

This was, of course, not entirely possible. All three of us were familiar with Holocaust deniers. I certainly knew of Rwandan genocide deniers, or those who try to mitigate that tragedy, though the latter position was virtually impossible to sustain. Instead, in the case of Rwanda, deflection is used – a practice with which every reader is likely to be extremely familiar since the election of President Donald Trump. The claim is that President Kagame of Rwanda has been systematically slaughtering Hutu since the Tutsi-led rebels invaded Rwanda and initiated the civil war in 1990. The numbers killed on each side, these genocide distractors imply, are about equal. This past month, I was asked to review a research paper that edged in this way towards apologetics. However ruthless President Kagame may be as an elected dictator in Rwanda, any fair examination of his record, positive and negative, would not declare him to be a genocidaire.

However, the Turks, and their successive governments of very different stripes, have been united perhaps on only one topic for over one hundred years  – the persistent and insistent denial of the Armenian genocide.  A Turkish graduate student of mine – not an Armenian – wanted to write a thesis on the Armenian refugees in WWI. Somehow the Turkish government heard of it. A representative of the Turkish embassy in Ottawa paid me a visit when I was the founding director of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University. He asked generally whther any student was writing about refugees, particularly from Turkey, during I disclosed nothing but informed my student. That student, fearing punishment on any return to Turkey, switched topics.

On the committee, I read much of the scholarly literature on the Armenian genocide as well as the Turkish propaganda denying its occurrence. What was distinctive from the Jewish and the Armenian genocides is that, in this case, there were two reputable scholars who denied that a systematic government-led effort to slaughter and forcefully relocate the Armenians had taken place. The vast majority of scholarly conclusions – as the committee claimed in its report to the Board of Education – supported the claims of genocide. Though the committee did not find that the evidence for the Armenian genocide taking place was incontrovertible or unassailable – there are very few historical events in which this is the case – the committee concluded that the overwhelming preponderance of evidence, and the logical flaws of the deniers, made it unquestionable that the Armenian genocide should be taught as a segment of actual history on a high school curriculum and without providing any necessity to make room for the literature of deniers. The evidence was as indisputable and indubitable as one can find in historiography. Yet two films appeared relatively recently that bordered on genocide denial – The Ottoman Lieutenant and Russell Crowe’s Water Diviner.

All this is to say that when I watched the film, I had no distraction or concern that the genocide had taken place. However, I was bothered somewhat by the implication that Turkey during the dying days of the Ottoman empire and even the beginnings of the Young Turk takeover in the aftermath of the disastrous Turko-Russian War largely waged in the Balkans in 1912, was simply a prosperous multicultural society. It certainly had that appearance. But just as there had been early warnings of a genocide in Rwanda with some trial efforts at mass slaughter, the warnings in Turkey were far clearer with the slaughter of 100,000 to 300,000 Armenians in the massacres of 1894-95 by the paramilitary Hamidye (the Interahamwe militias were used in Rwanda) and the 10,000–30,000 murdered by units of the armed forces in the Adana massacre of March-April 1909. However, as most scholars point out, a pogrom does not constitute a genocide. But pogroms can be precursors.

Thus, the film is correct in dating the formal start of the genocide to 24 April 1915 when several hundred Armenian professionals and intellectuals were rounded up and interned, with the vast majority eventually being killed. Second, the film depicts the second stage of the genocide when young Armenian (as well as Assyrian and Greek Christian) males from their teens to their forties were arrested, subjected to forced labour and murdered en masse in the process. The third phase of the slaughter portrays whole Armenian villages and towns put to the torch and Armenian older men, women and children set out on a forced march to Syria, where, on route, the vast majority perished in the desert which they attempted to cross with inadequate supplies of food and water. In the finale, the film portrays the brave and victorious Armenian 53-day self-defence by the Armenians from the villages of Kabusia (Kaboussieh), Yoghunoluk, Bitias, Vakef, Kheter Bey (Khodr Bey) and Haji Habibli  at the mountain, Musa Daği (ironically, Moses’ Mountain) recorded in Franz Werfel’s  novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, until over 4,000 Armenians were rescued by the French navy.

The genocidal scenes are handled with mastery by the director, Terry George, and constitute a complement to the beauty and variety and richness of Constantinople before the war. Terry George entered this project with a stellar reputation from directing Hotel Rwanda and, before that, Some Mother’s Son (1991) about the 1981 IRA prisoner hunger strike, In the Name of the Father (1993) and The Boxer (1997), the latter two both starring Daniel Day Lewis. Unlike these depictions of the troubles in Northern Ireland, The Promise is directed on an epic scale with wonderful crowd scenes varying from the throngs in the markets of Istanbul to the forced labourers to the mass deportations in cattle cars and the forced march of the Armenian inhabitants of towns and villages. The leads portrayed by Oscar Isaac as Mikael Poghosian, an apothecary with a determination to become a doctor, Charlotte Le Bon as the vivacious and vibrant Ana, and Christian Bale as the famous American journalist, Chris Meyers.

So what is wrong with the film? Why is it not the Armenian equivalent to Schindler’s List? It is certainly not the cinematography which is gorgeous – perhaps all-too-gorgeous, even in the scenes about the flight. Unlike Atom Egoyan’s 2003 imperfect movie Ararat, also on the Armenian genocide, the flaw in The Promise is in the script co-written by Terry George and Robin Swicord. The weakness is not because they used a romantic triangle among the three to anchor the film in the personal, but because the triangle remains too central when the belated portrayal of the genocide begins. Further, it turns into a contrived and cloying series of segments through the latter half of the movie. Finally, and I could not figure why, there is almost no sexual chemistry between Ana and Mikael.

Some reviewers that I read this morning found this simply to be a distraction. For other reviewers, it spoiled the film. While I agree with the consensus on the sentimental and manipulated personal narrative at the core of the film, the power of the portrayal of the genocide, the brilliant directing and cinematography, and the wonderful acting, even though the character of Mikael Poghosian is too much of a goody-two-shoes for me, the events and their portrayal more than make up for this lapse so that I was mesmerized by the film and would have rated it much higher than the negative and barely positive reviews that I read.

However, do not read the reviews before you watch the movie. I did not, and very rarely do, for, in this case, review after review egregiously offer an account of the plot in great detail. A script which allowed reviewers to be distracted from the main and very important subject matter can be blamed on the screenwriters, but reviewers are as much to blame for allowing their narrative sensibilities to detract from the power of the movie.

It is a must see. And it does not cost nearly as much to watch on TV as in a movie theatre, though I desperately wish I had viewed the panoramic scenes on a large movie screen.

 

with the help of Alex Zisman

Canadian Civil Society III – Partisans versus Impartiality

Canadian Civil Society III – Partisans versus Impartiality

by

Howard Adelman

This blog continues the discussion of the core values of the Canadian civil religion in contrast to the Stone- Trump ethos now governing the polis in the U.S.  In the previous two blogs, I dealt with the first five values: civility versus incivility; compassion versus passion; dignity versus indignation; diversity versus unity; and empathy versus insecurity. In this blog, I want to take up the last five antonyms:

Canada                                        U.S.A. (current ruling ethos)

  1. Impartial                           Partisan
  2. Egalitarian                        Inegalitarian
  3. Fairness                             Ruthless & even Unfair
  4. Freedom as a Goal          Freedom as Given
  5. False-consciousness        Humans as Falsifiers

Yesterday, at the final public session of a conference held at the Munk Centre at the University of Toronto on Religion and Ethno-Nationalism in the Era of the Two World Wars, Victoria Barnett from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Professor Susannah Heschel from The Mandel Center at Dartmouth College were on the final panel moderated by Doris Bergen, the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Chair of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto.

A number of observations:

  1. The conference in Ottawa was held by people engaged in interfaith dialogue; the conference in Toronto was, in part, about people engaged in interfaith dialogue 75-100 years ago.
  2. The Ottawa conference, like the Toronto one, was about religion, but the former presumed a peaceable kingdom and did not focus on either ethno-nationalism or violence but rather the victims of both.
  3. While the Ottawa conference was about interfaith cooperation to do good, the Toronto conference primarily explored the role of religion in causing, contributing to or exacerbating violence.
  4. The Ottawa and Toronto conferences are both signs of an increasing interest developed over the last couple of decades in the role religion plays in politics in general and in either peace or conflict more specifically, filling in a correlational gap in scholarship that heretofore focused only on power, economics, ideology, nationalism, etc.
  5. While the Ottawa conference approached the issue of the relation of religion to the polity from the perspective of participant observers, the Toronto conference strived for detachment, but both did so within an ideal of impartiality that, in itself, seemed to belie an essential part of traditional religion, its commitment to the truth of partiality as expressed in any specific religion.
  6. Lurking in the background of the Toronto conference was the heavily quantitative use of the Minorities at Risk (MAR) data base at the University of Maryland initiated by Ted Gurr in the mid-eighties and used in Jonathan Fox’s Religion, Civilization, and Civil War or his edited volume, Religion, Politics, Society, & the State, and, most importantly, his own conclusion that religion was not a salient factor in violent conflicts. The figure cited at the conference was only 13%.
  7. The latter complemented my own studies referred to in the Ottawa conference that historical memory rather than faith was a main determinant of assisting refugees, suggesting that faith had a very limited role in fostering good works as well as violence.
  8. Victoria Barnett suggested two main streams for approaching the relationship of religion and power, that of interfaith dialogue so evident in the Ottawa meeting, and a more critical approach, one which has barely broken through into deep discussions of theological differences and the role of those differences in fomenting violence or the role of overlapping beliefs fostering good works.
  9. Susannah Heschel was very suspicious, no, dismissive, of any attempt in using religion to apply to secular systems of values. Though she restricted her asides to caricatures – football as a religion – she was clear that she wanted to limit the use of the term to social systems based on rules and practices that made reference to a superior being, though religions exist which do not.
  10. However, in listening to the discussion, I concluded that the distinction was not between religions confined to a connection with a superior being and the extension into realms of civil society, but between faith systems that were rooted in absolute certainty and the truth for which one was willing, not only to die but to kill, versus religions that brought to consciousness that which had been taken for granted and, therefore, left unexamined, the connection between absolutist beliefs and violence.

The core characteristic of traditional religion may be that it is rooted in an inherent bias. Therefore, how can I dub a set of values articulated as the best for a polis as a civil religion if one of those values is impartiality? Is interfaith dialogue only possible because of a willingness to set aside or bracket theological differences in the search for commonality, thereby surrendering the core of that which may give religion its sense of passionate commitment? What if violence is defined as the commitment and effort to achieve a higher good? If so, how can interfaith dialogue be peaceful if it tries to go beyond making space for the other and, instead, uses the space in between and among to engage with others over commitment, over truth, and over what is most important in offering one’s life as a sacrifice? Or is that simply the orientation of the dominant Western religions?

One might even go further. Is not the development of a civil religion the sign of that effort to reach for a beyond that has been a hallmark of all religions, but doing so by setting aside the inherent connection to violence? In fact, is not the post-enlightenment effort over the last one hundred and fifty years been to discover and articulate a set of values and norms which defend a common humanity as primary? Has that effort not developed rules about the employment of violence, as in just war theory and practice, that allow lions to lie down beside lambs? In other words, the very effort to strive for impartiality, the very effort to esteem the core values of science, may be the core civic value in overcoming the traditional partisanship, not only of religion, but of ethno-nationalism?

Which brings me to the issue of equality. In Jeffrey Omar Usman’s very long scholarly article, “Defining Religion: The Struggle to Define Religion under the First Amendment and the Contributions and Insights of Other Disciplines of Study Including Theology, Psychology, Sociology, the Arts and Anthropology” [note the explicit omission of politics and economics] published in The North Dakota Law Review (83:123, 123-223, 2007), he concluded as follows:

“whatever definition of religion is applied, it should be applied in a consistent manner, and though courts should act with caution in defining religion, they should do so without fear. It is readily apparent that religion is incredibly difficult to define; scholars and courts have stumbled and will continue to do so in approaching this extraordinarily complicated subject. In endeavoring to formulate the best possible definition, the most important elements of the continuing effort by judges and academics to define religion are: (1) adherence to equality (my bold and italics) as a guiding interpretative principle; (2) employing the definition in a consistent manner; and (3) being cautious but not so frightened that the courts retreat to so vague a definition that the term religion loses its meaning.”

Why equality? Why consistency? How do these two overarching values help prevent slipping into the mire of meaningless equivocation? Look at how Usman’s key elements of a religion, that must be expressed, articulated and be unequivocal, are mapped onto those articulated by Susannah Heschel.

  1. “A religious belief or practice under the First Amendment…should be an approach toward or duty imposed by an authority that is part of some reality or understanding that is beyond the ordinary and beyond the state.” (This is a wider frame than Heschel’s definition in terms of a superior being, but it entails the retention of the distinction between a sacred authority and the profane in relation to fundamental questions of existence, and the exclusion of beliefs that are just personal and not broadly communal. The rituals of football or the collection of memorabilia about a celebrity or even the pursuit of wealth ad infinitum, do not deal with the meaning of suffering and death and the existence of spiritual reality, what Hegel called the Geist.
  2. On the other hand, that authority beyond the ordinary, whether it be called divine or not, “can encompass both the divine and demonic, the creative and the destructive.” (Paul Tillich) [I will return to this at the end.]
  3. There is a distinction between the right of free speech, a much broader right independent of religion, and a guarantee of the free exercise of and the prohibition against an established
  4. To go further, and in an extract by the Supreme Court of the U.S, “no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” The First Amendment states that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In other words, freedom from practicing religion is as important as freedom to practice one’s religion.
  5. When William James, one of the key founders of Pragmatism, in the nineteenth century wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience [note, experience is singular but religion is written as a plural noun], it is clear that, although there may be a singular ultimate concern, people experience life with a variety of competing and conflicting concerns through various experiences and, therefore, there should be no effort of the polity to give one set of concerns priority over another.

That is why the core sentiment expressed in the American First Amendment is so crucial in the construction of the values of the modern world. Impartiality, equality and fairness are at the centre of post-enlightenment religion rather than partisanship, inegalitarianism as well as ruthless and unfair practices characteristic of the profane realm and built into historic religions. The Stone-Trump doctrine raises the profane values of extreme partisanship, inegalitarianism and ruthless and unfair methods to advance a cause once seen to be core values of religion and ones removed from that core by the First Amendment and modern efforts to articulate a Civil Religion. It is a civil religion as demonic.

And the reason is simple. Whereas Hobbes and Locke made the fundamental mistake of presuming that freedom rather than equality was the fundamental given, and, therefore, allowed those who developed their ideas on this platform to conceive of the state as an instrument for squelching or confining that freedom, a modern civil religion views freedom as the holy grail, as a state that we should be dedicated to establishing for all humanity.

This brings me to my final set of antonyms, false-consciousness versus humans as falsifiers. The latter is easy to understand. Those who would raise the core of the profane to the level of the sacred are slaves to dishonesty, to using whatever is necessary to win, in business or in politics, as long as those efforts fall within the law, or, at least, fall within the law that can be used to send you to prison and deprive you of freedom – hence the effort to control the making of laws to expand the realm in which dishonesty can be used with impunity. Some would claim that sacred is even a non-issue for such people, but the passion of belief of a man like Roger Stone suggests otherwise.

Freedom, instead of providing a platform in which different groups can pursue the questions of the ultimate meaning of existence without interference by the state, is conceived as already pre-determined, as rooted in a law of nature: each individual exists simply to pursue his or her own well-being. Freedom equals the doctrine of possessive individualism. That is why all other belief systems can be used and abused, trampled upon and cast aside, in the pursuit of self interest.

In Friedrich Engels and other theorists, false consciousness was the use of people pursuing survival within an ideological and institutional framework that perpetuated rather than undermined inequality. It was the disease at the ideological base of capitalism. It is the base that forms the core of the Stone-Trump ideology in an effort to monopolize the conception of capitalism under the virtue of greed in the guise of free competition. However, it should be apparent to everyone that competition for recognition is not equivalent to competition over the acquisition of material goods ad infinitum, that competition in capitalism can be a virtue without raising greed to a high altar in the holy of holies.

No one who turns mendacity into a supreme virtue can even explore the conception of false consciousness. For the purveyors of this supreme lie allow for no other competing belief in their civic demonic religion. All humans are greedy. Period! The core of a civil religion is to unpack this false consciousness, not only in others, but in our own ideological conceptions and institutional preferences. Critical self-consciousness to uproot false consciousness has to be at the centre of a civilized civil religion.

It is these values of this demonic religion set in Catfish Row on the waterfront of Charleston, South Carolina, where a Black mammie takes care of the child of a good-lookin momma and rich and powerful father, that were satirized in George Gershwin’s “Summertime” that I heard a chorus sing at a concert last evening.

Summertime,

And the livin’ is easy
Fish are jumpin’
And the cotton is high

Oh, Your daddy’s rich
And your mamma’s good lookin’
So hush little baby
Don’t you cry

One of these mornings
You’re going to rise up singing
Then you’ll spread your wings
And you’ll take to the sky

But until that morning
There’s a’nothing can harm you
With your daddy and mammy standing by.

Then, among the Hebrew, Yiddish and other great songs, the choir sang “Blackbird” that expressed the ultimate goal of the new civic religion.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night,
Take these broken wings and learn to fly.
All your life,
You were only waiting for the moment to arise.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night,
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see.
All your life,
You were only waiting for the moment to be free.

Black bird fly, black bird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.

Black bird fly, black bird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly.
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

A Tale of Love and Darkness

A Tale of Love and Darkness

by

Howard Adelman

Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day in Israel, begins at 8:00 p.m. on Monday evening. At dusk this Sunday evening until 8:00 p.m. tomorrow, Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day, Israel’s national Remembrance Day is observed to commemorate those who fell since 1860 in the cause of establishing and preserving the State of Israel. More formally, the day is called: l’Chalalei Ma’arachot Yisrael ul’Nifge’ei Pe’ulot Ha’eivah…”We Will Fulfill the Last Will of the Fallen – to Defend Our Home in Israel.” 1860 is chosen as the beginning date for counting, for that year marks the first time that Jews were permitted to live outside the ancient walls of Jerusalem since the Second Temple fell. Those fallen include not only those who died in battle, but those who were victims of terrorist attacks. The number 24,000 has been accepted as the approximate total of those who have died for the sake of Israel, but 60 service personnel and 11 civilians were added to that total since Memorial Day in 2016. Many more died in that effort as you will read. This blog is dedicated to them as well.

 

It should be no surprise that many events preceded these two holidays. I chaired a discussion about the state of contemporary Zionism and Israel in mid-week in which Emanuel Adler depicted the drift in Israel towards illiberalism which, in retrospect, could be interpreted as a nostalgic tribute to Amos Oz, the co-founder of Peace Now. On Saturday morning, our Torah study group focused on the parts of the text that justified Jews living in and possessing the land and the reasons why ancient Israelite leaders who lived and/or died in the diaspora wished to be buried in Israel. Reasons offered were legal, political, security, psychological pushes and sociological pulls. The Saturday morning sermon in synagogue was given by Galit Baram, the Israeli Consul General in Toronto; she was born in Jerusalem in 1969 and studied archeology and English – which she speaks perfectly – at Tel Aviv University. She did her MA in American studies and after graduation became a political assistant in the Foreign Ministry of Israel. Before coming to Canada, she was Director of the Department for Palestinian Affairs and Regional Cooperation.

I may write about one or more of the above topics over the next few days. However, today, to commemorate the beginning of Yom HaZikaron this evening, I will review the film Natalie Portman directed and in which she starred as the mother of Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness, which we saw, almost coincidentally on Netflix last evening. I gather the film received mixed reviews when it showed at Cannes and at TIFF, where I missed it, and then when it had a general release. I thank God for Netflix. Though the reviews of the film were positive generally, most were tepidly positive. In contrast, I loved the film and think Natalie Portman was very courageous as well as creative in directing a film with as much of a literary ear as a cinematic eye in full respect to the writings of Amos Oz.

In one very positive review that I did read following its TIFF showing, published on 14 September 2016 in Esquire, Stephen Marche called the movie “urgently relevant and unlike anything else.” Though I agree that the film is unlike most other movies, Marche argued that what made it relevant was the debate over the Iran nuclear deal that developed a schism between Americans – at least Democrats – and Israel and between American Jews and the remainder of the American public. Though I belong to the Jewish minority who favoured the deal, A Tale of Love and Darkness was not suddenly relevant because of the deal. Otherwise, it would be irrelevant today. And it is not.

Although Marche’s review expressed an extraordinary admiration for the film, Marche was wrong, not only about the relevance issue, but in his take on the film. The movie remains highly relevant even when the Iran nuclear deal has slipped into the background in both Israel and the U.S. as most have accepted that, whatever other dangers the deal may have helped facilitate in the tensions between Iran and both Israel and the U.S., the situation in North Korea reminds us how beneficial the Iran nuclear deal was and remains. Marche argued that, “The film is a study of the moment when Jews changed from being a people in the diaspora to a people with a country. The birth of Israel is so much more than a setting here—it is the existential reality that shapes the characters.”

That is not true. The film offers no such study. Further, people shaped Israel in turn. History is not simply in the background scattered through the film as incidental events to mark time and determine character. Nor is it an issue of either a politically relevant film in the background or Marche’s contention that, “ultimately life is about your fucked-up family. That’s the insight at the heart of A Tale of Love and Darkness.” The emphasis on the personal and the intimate is not the insight. And the choice is the very reverse of either/or, of background and foreground, of cause and effect. For Amos Oz, and for Natalie Portman in the way she directed the film, it is a matter of both/and. The political and the personal are dialectically intertwined and ultimately inseparable, each throwing light upon the other.

A Tale of Love and Darkness is not simply remarkable because it veers away from the sentimentality of the shtetl, as in Fiddler on the Roof, or the redemptive theme of films like Schindler’s List. It is extraordinary as a movie that tries to give a cinematic expression to a literary vision. Certainly, the movie is neither sentimental nor heroic. It is both and so much more.  But the heroism is of a dear friend of Amos Oz’s mother hanging up a sheet on a clothesline and then shot and killed as a sniper bullet cuts through the laundry. It is the heroism of a small boy playing in the dirt who was also shot and killed by a sniper. The film is true to Oz’s 2002 memoir. The emotions are raw. The wounds are gaping. No bandage can fix them like the bloody finger Amos Oz’s father suffered after another of his clumsy mishaps. And no lecture or intellectual argument can fill the gap of our incomprehension. There are no sermons in the movie.

I write this because I was sure that I had read Oz’s book – after all it was the largest selling literary work in the history of Israel – but when I watched the film, I could not remember anything. Perhaps that is because I read enough about it to come to the imaginary conclusion that I read Amos Oz’s memoir. Perhaps there were other Freudian reasons for my belief or my forgetfulness. About three decades ago, Oz and I were having a shabat breakfast at the home of a mutual friend in Jerusalem. We got into an hour long silly debate about fashion and his contention that the fashion industry controlled what we wear. I was attending the fashion show in Israel the following week and he thought it preposterous that I, as a philosopher, loved fashion shows. I contended that fashion then – it continues today – is more a reflection of popular culture than a determinant of it. There was no resolution to that debate because we were not listening acutely to one another.

And Oz is an acute observer who listens to his heart. The best scene in the movie based on the memoir is one of the few without Natalie Portman who plays his mother (Fania) and is the central figure in the memoir and the movie other than Amos himself. Oz (Amir Tessler) is a young boy prior to the War of Independence in post WWII Palestine who is sent to play in the garden of an Arab official when his caregivers, friends of his parents, attended a party there. In the garden was a beautiful Arab girl on a swing who spoke Hebrew fluently and had the ambition of becoming a poet. Oz was entranced and clearly infatuated. As we watch her young baby brother playing in the dirt and then Oz climb a tree and act out playing Tarzan, whose solitary life with animals and personal strength and daring mesmerized him, in the audience we wait with “bated breath” as the cliché goes to see whether Oz will fall and even fall on the small boy as he has already fallen for the beautiful Arab girl.

A weak link in the chain breaks and a small but significant disaster follows. For Oz, disasters are the results of an accumulation of minutiae and usually unforeseen events rather than a cataclysmic sudden shift in history which is a product rather than a cause. This is true in the history of a nation and in one’s personal history. The result was, as Oz wrote, that “everything was silent all around you in an instant as though you had been shut up inside an iceberg.” For violence is as much about a failure of communication as it is about intractable differences. Between and among Jews as well as between Israel and her enemies.

Early in the film, we see Amos Oz’s father being connected by phone. The timing of the call must be arranged. The technical details have to be put in place. Communication is obviously very difficult. Who is Arieh calling in America or Europe? It turned out he was calling Tel Aviv and the call is quickly aborted to be arranged at another day and time to be confirmed by post. The film is as much about the failure in communication, the failure to connect and the gaps, the abysses, that result.

The film, based on the memoir, is a juxtaposition of opposites and their interplay, love (mother) and darkness (father), romantic Zionism and realpolitik, Jewish idealism and the harsh reality of Jabotinsky’s vision imprinted in his father but largely omitted from the film, the romance of Rovno in Poland/Ukraine where Amos Oz’s mother lived with servants and chandeliers and then the darkness of exile and the Holocaust, fantasy and reality in our minds, Jewish Polish (sweet) versus Jewish Russian (somewhat sour) borscht in the minutiae of Jewish cooking culture, generosity versus truth – Oz’s mother advises that it is better to be generous and have a sensitive heart than to be honest, between idyllic scenery and a barren landscape of narrow and claustrophobic alleys in the so-called City of Peace that is Jerusalem destroyed over and over again by successive invaders, movie versus memoir, word play (Adam, Adom, Adon and Dom) which non-Hebrew speakers mostly miss in a film which has many such moments of insight, metaphors such as gates which open and the abyss which we face, a world in which a cauliflower can hold up the sky and a world portrayed where the sky was literally falling in post-WW II Palestine and newly independent Israel, between paradise and hell, between compassion and prudence, between intellectuals and bullies, between the pale faces of poets and the deep tans of a sabra on a kibbutz, between intellectuals and heroic soldiers, but also between hapless dreamers and bullies, some of whom could be seduced with words and stories, between the rebirth of an Israel based on a two millennial dream and the loss of passion and idealism with the emergence of the state according to Oz and when Oz’s mother stopped telling stories, between the eternal innocence Oz’s mother saw in her son’s soul and the deep guilt ever present in the writing of Amos Oz, between an open and a closed world, between blinding whiteness and equally blinding blackness when blackbirds or crows cover the sun and the sky, between children whom you love more than anything and children who outlive you, outgrow you and who in some parts of their being must reject you. “Every mother ends up crying alone.”

His mother and he are caught between fire and the water from which Oz as a boy in a dreamlike story traversing the landscape dressed as a monk alongside his mother, also dressed as a monk. Both were pledged to silence, but his mother succumbed and he survived. On the journey, the young Oz dreams of rescuing a drowning maiden versus the reality of fire, the reality of the fantastical story, told to him by his mother, of a gentile woman in Rovno who burned herself alive when rejected by her child and called a whore after she fled her abusive husband into the arms of a lover,

In spite of it all, the love of Jerusalem versus the ironic darkness of Tel Aviv where Oz’s mother eventually takes an overdose of her anti-depression medication in January 1952 and dies in the home of a sister, either Sonya or Chaya, I was not clear which. The two sisters had chosen the new life of Tel Aviv versus the dark passages of the history of Jerusalem. The suicide takes place against the background of a debate over whether to reject German reparations – the position of the idealists, primarily from the right – and the pragmatic view that the money was needed to resettle refugees.

The film does have a historical line. Though the movie begins in post WWII Palestine, there are flashbacks and references to Rovno, now Rivne in Ukraine, where 25,000 Jews once lived in pre-war Poland. The film refers to 23,000 Jews who were marched into the Sosenski Forest and murdered, though the number represents the total killed since 2-3,000 were killed prior to that fateful two-day march and another 2-3,000 were killed afterwards when the ghetto was destroyed. But the flashbacks and references precede that period of darkness when Fania Mussman enjoyed the comforts of an upper middle class life that was such a contrast with the hardships she endured in a small cold apartment in Jerusalem.

Someday I will catch the short documentary made prior to Natalie Portman’s movie by the daughter of Amos Oz, Fania Oz-Salzberger, named after his mother, Fania Oz-Salzberger is an Israeli scholar and historian who wrote one book with her father, jews and words (not capitalized), in which the two declared that “ours is not a bloodline, but a text line.” Amos inherited the word play and love of words from his father. The documentary traced Fania Mussman’s travels with her mother to Palestine with her two sisters, Amos Oz’s aunts, Sonya and Chaya, for the three sisters were ardent Zionists educated at the famous Tarbut School in Poland.

It was Zionism that saved the family from the Holocaust and saved Amos Oz for the world. However, the mother of Fania, Sonya and Chaya, instead of offering blessings for her salvation because of her daughters’ Zionist idealism, never forgot or let anyone else forget the wonderful life they had left behind in what was once Poland in a region in which Jews once consisted of 25% of the population. Amos Oz’s memoir is full of Rovno, but it exists only as very shaded background in Natalie Portman’s film.

The movie, A Tale of Love and Darkness, really begins with curfews and attacks from Arabs and then all-out warfare after the UN Resolution on partition was passed in November 1947 and Arab countries invaded the nascent Jewish state when independence was declared on 15 May 1948. The siege of Jerusalem and famine followed. Oz’s father, Yehuda Klausner (Gilad Kahana) called Arieh, a pedant about words, a librarian and an author who resisted writing books with any popular appeal, incompetently planted greens in their small garden as Oz collected empty bottles to make Molotov cocktails and sand for sandbags. Short sighted, with two left feet, Arieh had used words to win the hand of beautiful Fania, only to gradually lose her to her dreams and eventual depression.

Finally, the 1949 Armistice Agreement arrived and the determination of the line, called, without any sense of the irony, the Green Line that would prove to be anything but temporary in the world mental landscape or a source of new growth. But the semi-final act of the film occurs several years later with the Tel Aviv floods of 1951-2, of which we were reminded in 2013 and 2016, and Amos could not save his mother from drowning in her depression. According to Oz, dreams should never be fulfilled, the messiah should never come, because that will only bring the onset of disaster, the very opposite message of Independence Day that will begin to be celebrated tomorrow. Amos Oz tried to act out the romantic vision of his mother and, as depicted in the movie, left his father to live as a farmer on a kibbutz. But when his father came to visit him on the kibbutz in the film, and Amos sits upon a tractor, Amos Oz could not hide from either others or himself that he had the pale soul of a writer rather than the dark tan of a sabra, bronzed Jews who could swim as Amos Oz dubbed them. His mother chose deep sadness in place of ordinary pretense and the grandiloquent fantasies of the stories she told her son but could not sustain. Amos Oz chose to write – and live.

Taken to its logical conclusion, or, at least, back to its fundamental premise articulated in the depressive state of Amos Oz’s mother, romantic utopianism leads to the reverse, deep depression. “I know nothing about anybody; we all know nothing; better to die not knowing.” Truth be told, we only live in a balancing act, balancing on a tight rope between messianic perfection and cosmological ignorance. But that is not a truth with which the romantics who sacrificed their lives for the dream of Israel could accept. Oz never gave up his dream but has always accepted reality sufficient to survive. He wrote brilliant books with wry humour, the one element of his writing largely sidelined in Natalie Portman’s magnificent movie; she does capture some of his incisive irony. But Amos never forgot to cry for his dead mother.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Jason Moran: Skateboarding on a Piano

Jason Moran: Skateboarding on a Piano

by

Howard Adelman

I will return to my series on antisemitism soon enough, but I must take two detours, one into jazz and a second into the theory and practice of sovereignty based on a conference I attended Friday.

I am not a jazz aficionado. I have no record or disc collection. And though I listen to Jazz FM91 on the radio, I would not say I do it regularly. But I do ensure I get my fix by attending the jazz series at Koerner Hall that Mervon Mehta puts together each year.

It was not always like that. I used to teach in the evenings. In the seventies, after my graduate seminar, I would drop into one of the clubs for one set as a way of unwinding before heading home. I was not a fan of rock and missed many famous concerts – such as the one in 1977 before I moved to Israel for a year when Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones performed and then was busted for heroin possession on an occasion made even more famous because he was consorting with Margaret Trudeau, the mother of our current Prime Minister, who had just split with Justin’s father when the latter was Prime Minister. I missed Richard’s concert at the El Mocambo, even though I often went there when a blues band was playing.

I was not a purist, for I often went to the Horseshoe Tavern on the north side of Queen Street to listen to country, though I stopped when the venue switched to emphasizing punk. I loved listening to the Downchild Blues Band at Grossman’s Tavern in my childhood district on Spadina Avenue between Dundas and College Streets. However, my favourite place was the Chick’N’Deli on Mt. Pleasant just south of Eglington, partly because the scene was so intimate, partly because the venue was en route from Glendon College to my home, but mostly because some of the greatest jazz greats played there.

What takes me down this nostalgic lane was listening last night to one of the most terrific jazz concerts I have ever heard. Jason Moran and The Bandwagon were featured at Koerner Hall last night. The trio, which included Tarus Mateen on the bass guitar and Nasheet Waits on drums, played one tune by Fats Waller, “The Sheik of Araby.” Sometime in the seventies, I had heard Fats Waller play that very tune at the Chick’N’Deli.

However, Jason said that was the tune he was playing. If he had not told me, I would never have known, perhaps the absolute proof that I am not a jazz aficionado. When Fats Waller played at the Chick’N’Deli, it was wild and the place was literally jumping. Jumpin and jivin! But last evening, Jason made the music soar instead. It cascaded up and up. Just when my heartbeat said it could not swirl faster and higher any longer, the music would go up again, faster at even greater heights and with more twists and turns, not once again, not twice again, but four or five times. I thought I would burst.

Jason Mason’s music whooshes and reaches crescendo after crescendo. Evidently, when he was in high school in Texas, he was an avid skateboarder. Jazz music clearly usurped skateboarding because it allowed him to almost escape the pull of gravity and to take us with him. This is not just a metaphor. While Waller would interweave Dixieland and blues, stride and swing, Jason was more of a classical artisan weaver who cut each strip from the trunk of a swamp tree and interwove those strips in new ways by infusing the music with both classical and post-modern atonal elements to create a synchronized whole.

In his porkpie hat and fashionably stubble beard, Jason Mason is a creator not a curator. He gives homage to traditional flare, but with complex rhythms that take you on a roller coaster that is no longer anchored to the ground. Yet he allows you to savour each and every note.

It is hard to choose which was the best number. His piece, Thelonious, that he played last evening was one of Monk’s own compositions. The playing was both a tribute and one personified by Moran. Jason Moran regards Thelonious Monk as the greatest jazz pianist in history. You can listen to a full tribute at http://www.npr.org/event/music/446866440/jason-moran-plays-thelonious-monks-town-hall-concert. By intersecting modernist elements, the composition is refreshed, renewed and reinvigorated in an absolutely new way. It should not be surprising that the first album that Jason released in 2002 was called Modernistic.

Last night, Jason Moran played Body and Soul in a way that took out the conjunction and turned the body into soul. It was like having a religious experience. But his music is also political. He has written compositions to convey the feeling of both slavery in America, apartheid in South Africa and, in the movie, Selma, the struggle against institutionalized discrimination against blacks that continued into the sixties in the United States and has taken new forms since. Moran fuses intellectual analysis with empathetic re-enactment. He will infuse pop genres unfamiliar to me, but also combining African beats and stride. He played a portion of Wind taken from the soundtrack that he wrote for the famous 2016 documentary 13th on race, and incarceration rates in the U.S. injustice system that I have yet to see, but I have read enough about it to know I must watch it. The music he played last night made me move it to top place on my bucket list.

I Ain’t Misbehavin and I Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, but when I do, Sweet Honey Bee in the hands of Jason Moran, Tarus Mateen and Nasheet Waits takes me upward into the clouds to suck sweet nectar from extra-terrestrial flowers. At the same time, like Fats Waller’s most famous tune, the music takes me home, takes me on a nostalgic trip when my first brood were just entering their teens, and when I was totally immersed in my teaching and research career. That is more than a metaphor. Moran and his trio opened with a tune called Gangsters or something – I did not catch the title – or perhaps I heard it totally incorrectly because I was thinking about an Australian mobster and drug dealer by the same name as Jason Moran who had become infamous when I was visiting Australia fifteen years ago before I even became a research professor there from 2005-2008. Until I heard that number, it never occurred to me that jazz could really be about murder and mayhem.

Moran is no gangster. Instead of killing, he is truly a genius well deserving of all the awards he has accumulated, including a Genius Award and MacArthur Fellowship (2010). He has had many nominations and several times won as best jazz pianist of the year. For, in addition to his own original works, he allows artists to be born again in a new way for a contemporary audience. He himself is an artist pure and simple, so it is no surprise that he composes works that accompany art installations and creates video artworks collected by MOMA.

 

If he comes your way, do not miss him.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman