The Silence of Smell

The Silence of Smell

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday I began to probe the question about an appropriate or the appropriate way to deal with the loss of a loved one or with a mourner who suffered such a loss. In particular, I was concerned with silence as a response, a focus stimulated by my Torah study group that zeroed in on Aaron’s silence in the face of God’s murder of his two eldest sons for their error in using incense and lighting the fire in the holy of holies. Though the link to this passage was provided by Yom HaShoah, the Day of Holocaust Remembrance that begins this evening, almost everyone in that study session focused on the issue of individual responses to death rather than to a historic and unprecedented community loss.

Perhaps that is because the answer is simple in the latter case. A common trope in Holocaust literature is the inability of language or any individual emotional response to deal with the enormity and incomparibility of the disaster. In the face of the Holocaust, silence may possibly be the only appropriate response. This is true to Jewish religious tradition. In Lamentations 2:13, in the face of the destruction of the Temple, the Israelite asks, “what can I liken you, oh fair Jerusalem? What can I match with you to console you, oh fair maiden of Zion?” When disaster is overwhelming, when there is no pain like it, no response, not even silence, seems appropriate.

However, in reality, silence may not simply be inadequate. It may be wrong. It may be an inappropriate response. To mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day on the 27th of January, Donald Trump issued a statement that did not mention the Jewish people. Admittedly, this is not exactly comparable, for it is the response of a sympathizer rather than the mourner. Further, it was not as if the White House remained silent. It issued a response that simply omitted any mention of Jews. It then doubled down on its error by attempting to explain in terms of an effort at inclusiveness for there were many other victims of the Nazi murder machine than Jews – Roma, homosexuals, liberals, trade union leaders, the victims of the Nazi euthanasia program of the disabled. The collective furor from the Jewish community, however, was understandable.

But they might have been thankful for small favours. Trump did not engage in an even more inappropriate response by shifting the focus to America’s sacrifices in the conquest of Nazi Germany. If silence becomes an excuse for ignoring the specificity of suffering, recollecting one’s countries positive efforts is surely an inappropriate response.

Contrary to my belief that Donald Trump never seems to learn from his daily errors, this time the White House responded very differently to Yom HaShoah. Trump sent out a video tape in which he said the following:

“On Yom HaShoah we look back at the darkest chapter of human history. We mourn, we remember, we pray, and we pledge: Never again. I say it, never again. The mind cannot fathom the pain, the horror and the loss. Six million Jews, two-thirds of the Jews in Europe, murdered by the Nazi genocide. They were murdered by an evil that words cannot describe and that the human heart cannot bear. On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, we tell the stories of the fathers, mothers and children, whose lives were extinguished and whose love was torn from this earth. We also tell the stories of courage in the face of death, humanity in the face of barbarity, and the unbreakable spirit of the Jewish people.”

While the sentiments expressed were now appropriate, Trump still erred, this time by commission rather than omission, by going on to repeat another myth, one most frequently perpetrated by Jews themselves. The birth of Israel was a response to the Holocaust and testimony to Jewish perseverance. The latter may be true, but Israel would have come into existence without the Holocaust. There is no evidence that the passage of the UN motion on partition took place because of worldwide guilt over the Holocaust. Silence in the face of the Holocaust was the usual response at the time and is now generally perceived as “inappropriate.”

Further, an outpouring of grief is the usual response of young people when they come face to face with the Holocaust. In response to yesterday’s blog, a reader described a documentary I have never seen about Israeli youth visiting the crematoria and internment camps in Poland. Each young person is given the name of a specific victim and asked to research their lives, their history. The effort is painful. The youth do the work and cry and wail. They are not silent.

What a contrast with the depiction of visitors by Alex Cocotas in his article in Tablet entitled, “BLOW UP THE MEMORIAL TO THE MURDERED JEWS OF EUROPE.” The memorial is located in Berlin’s central government district near the Brandenburg Gate. If a visitor is not cavorting among the 2,711 stelae, he or she is bewildered and struck silent, not by the enormity of the deed, but by the disorientation of the maze that results. Quiet contemplation, as he has observed, is rare. Play and selfie photos are the norm. As he writes, “It is, for them, an Event, spreading from Instagram to Instagram, an item on the itinerary, somewhere between currywurst and the East Side Gallery, tethered to intention by a geotag.”

I have had only one very direct experience in encountering the mass deaths of victims of a genocide. In my study with Astri Suhrke of the role of bystanders in the genocide of 800,000 to one million Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, we visited the disinterred bodies of a mass grave that held over 16,000 victims. The skeletons of children, of women with rods thrust up their vaginas, of body after body laid out on the school benches in each of the classrooms at the technical school where they were killed, was overwhelming. We were all struck dumb, but not exactly silent. We had to talk because our visit had a functional component – confirming the accuracy of the figures of the total number of victims. We counted and compared counts.

The bodies had been disinterred only weeks before. The mass grave had been so packed, that there was very little decomposition of the flesh. It hung on the skeletons like the rags left of their clothes. If the picture never leaves me of that scene, the most powerful experience was the horrific smell. I need only mention the incident and the smell comes back as if I was still there. The immediacy of the confrontation with mass death comes primarily from my nostrils, not my voice. My mind goes into overdrive, racing from one portrait to another, one reflection to another.

Nothing is as evocative as the sense of smell, more so even than any picture. Auditory and visual records, words formed to convey experiences – none of these seems to compete with smell. Therefore, I entitled this blog the Silence of Smell. I could have called it the Smell of Suffering but that would have ignored my major theme – the appropriateness or inappropriateness to giving voice to the suffering of others and one’s own suffering at the memory. At that time, giving voice was not the issue. Olfactory nausea and unfathomable emotional disturbance was the order of the day and was the source of the most recurring and disturbing memories.

We know our sense of smell is located in the centre of the brain. So perhaps smell, rather than debates over giving voice to the enormity of the crime, may be a more appropriate way of memorializing mass murder and death. After all, smell is central to many happy memories as well. That is how I best remember my children when they were infants. I can still smell the sweet scent of their poop and fragrance of the powder applied to prevent any rash from forming.

There may be another reason for stressing the silence of smell as a route to memorializing. Scent is associated with nostrils. And nostrils are associated with being nosy, with sticking your nose into affairs ostensibly not of your making or your concern. When it comes to genocide, the dictum of minding your own business, of remaining silent, is inappropriate. And the issue is not simply that you could have been the victim, that we ought to engage in humanitarian intervention because of our shared humanity. An abstract common identification as humans has not proven to be very effective in motivating risk and involvement.

In any case, the identification is a false one. I live a life of privilege in a land that not only guarantees freedom, but delivers on the promise, in a land that not only ensures my well-being, but goes a long way to delivering on that promise as well. But not all the way. Not for everyone. And if the promise proved false for me, it is possible that I might focus my attention exclusively on my and my family’s deprivation rather than the general deprivation of others.

But perhaps that is not the purpose of silence, not the purpose of the silence of smell or the smell of suffering. The issue is really not my identification with the victim. The issue is not whether, but for the grace of God, that could have been me. As I counted bodies disinterred from that mass grave dug three weeks before Juvénal Habyarimana was killed and three weeks before the Rwanda genocide began, the issue was not my identification with those killed, but with those who perpetrated the crime. But most of all with those who abetted the crime by their silence, by their indifference.

The victims of the Holocaust and the Rwanda genocide and the Armenian genocide and all the other enormous crimes against particular peoples, were victims because they were not responsible for taking their fate into their own hands. The genocide was perpetrated because that responsibility was removed from their hands. If we identify with that victimhood, we identify with our incapacity in some circumstances to take action when we need to be reminded that we are in a position of responsibility to intervene.

Further, it is almost impossible for us who live in privileged circumstances and enjoy the responsibility of guiding the course of our own lives to identify with victims who were denied that privilege. And if we had been so denied, at the time our response might just as likely have been the responsibility to protect ourselves, not other victims of the crime of cancelling that responsibility. Identification with victimhood has a tendency to inculcate either self-pity or passivity and not our sense of responsibility. The task of memorializing and of mourning is to remember, not that we or those who died were ineffectual and passive victims of the laws of nature or the realism of international political affairs, but that they lived lives of wonder and discovery and to discover how and why we betrayed them. For ordinary people allow the perpetuation of such atrocities by the few.

I was and remain a citizen of one such country that failed in its responsibility – not the main one, for General Roméo Dallaire somewhat redeemed a streak of Canadian honour. Canada did not live up to the responsibility to protect. The issue was not identification with the victim or identification with victimhood, but identification with perpetrators. In that, there can be and should not be any silence as the silence of smell always reminds me. The smell of mass death is universal. But memory must bring to life those who lived and became victims, individuals who had parents and children or were children themselves. Yom HaShoah for me is both the silent smell of mass murder and the need to talk about the personal lives of those who lived and died.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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Losing Oneself

A Review of Still Alice

by

Howard Adelman

[For David, Debbie and Zach]

Look at Bellow’s portrait of Chicago to which the protagonist returns where he knows he cannot remain invisible. “The main threat [Bellow calls it a ‘liminal’ threat] in a place like Chicago is emptiness – human gaps and breaks, a sort of spiritual ozone that smells like bleach.” However, it is precisely this liminality, this role of the atmosphere of a place, that allows it to serve as an intermediate and transitional condition between failed efforts to disappear and successful, but crooked and indirect, ways to reappear.

If you read yesterday’s blog reviewing Saul Bellow’s novella Actual, if you do not have Alzheimer’s or some other cognitive condition or dementia that impairs memory, or if you are not getting old and forgetful, or if you are not, like me, suffering from a terrible memory for some things and a terrific memory for others, perhaps you will remember the above paragraph from near the end of yesterday’s blog and review. I did not know then that yesterday evening on Netflix I would watch the movie, Still Alice, with a grounded performance by Juliane Moore playing Alice Howland with a subtlety and grace that reveals both Alice’s strengths and increasing vulnerability. Still Alice premiered at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival and I missed seeing it then. During its theatrical release, I was out of town. However emotionally shaken I became last evening, I was really happy I saw the movie.

I do not believe I have seen a film before on Alzheimer’s – and there have been plenty in the last decade – that viewed the onset and progress of the disease from the point of view of the victim rather than a family member. The performance deserved an Academy award.

At least half a million Canadians suffer from various forms of dementia; Alice learned that she had contracted a rare type, early-onset Alzheimer’s, when she was a 50-year-old in the prime of her life and at the height of her career as a linguistics professor at, in the movie, Columbia University. There are early clues. She forgets the word “lexicon” during a lecture and, after some hesitation, substitutes, if I remember correctly, “word field.” She first really recognizes that something must be terribly wrong when she is taking her regular exercise running through the grounds and parks of Columbia University and suddenly finds she is lost and totally disoriented even though she is in the central commons of the campus. But the most severe blow does not come when the diagnosis is confirmed, but when she learns that early-onset Alzheimer’s is inherited and that each of her children has a 50/50 chance of inheriting the condition. Even Job never received news as bad as this.

If you read the book by Lisa Genova upon which the movie was based, it may be easier to remember the scene near the end of the movie when Alice’s youngest daughter, Lydia, also played brilliantly by Kristen Stewart, describes a metaphor of flying in the stratosphere above even the thinned out ozone layer that she can look down upon and observe how fragmented and thin and broken up it is. But then souls of the dead rise up to the ozone layer, thicken it and connect the parts together into a network to make it whole again.

She describes this to her mother who by then has trouble even recognizing her own daughter and who has just gone through a year in which the neurons in her brain were undergoing necrosis, premature dying off and then asphyxiating nearby cells so that one’s own cells that have given you your thoughts, that have made you who you are, and, that, in Alice’s case in a very specific and peculiar ironic way, have been the very object of her research and the foundation of her professional success, that are for everyone the basis for each person’s ideas and memories, those same cells now turn upon nearby cells in a process of molecular murder instigated by the cellular suicide of one of the neurons. The process makes no noise. The person in whose head this necrotic process is taking place only knows it, only figures out that something is wrong, because she begins to recognize that what is happening is not her, that she is losing herself.

Instead of a thinking and remembering brain, made up of networks of neurons, the network begins to break down. Gaps appear. The cells in a PET scan appear fragmented and broken. Further, as the cell membranes lose their integrity, the cell releases the deadly poisons of cell death into the extracellular space. The result – inflammation that prevents the phagocytes from reaching and removing the dead cells through pagocytosis. So the condition worsens. More networks breakdown and the process accelerates. Unlike the process that Stephen Hawking, played by Eddie Redmayne, goes through in The Theory of Everything, the deterioration is all the more shattering because it is mental rather than physical, because one loses one’s mind and one’s self and not just the functioning of one’s body.

In Lydia’s metaphor, however, with the death of the cells, with the death of the cell network, with the loss of integrity and increasing fragmentation, the souls of those dying people that are being lost, rise up to the real ozone layer in the heavens rather than Bellow’s imagined ozone layer in the streets of Chicago. Those souls link arms and form a new network that holds together and thickens the ozone layer. So death ensures the continuation of life.

For Bellow, the gaps, the emptiness, the necrosis, was neither in the heavens nor inside one’s head, but in the streets of Chicago. There the ozone layer lives, not in the stratosphere. It smells like bleach. And it performs a liminal function in linking a failed effort to disappear and a crooked and indirect way to reappear. In the film (and the novel) Still Alice, the disappearance of the self requires no effort and it is tragically successful What reappears is not a reborn self, a self who is saved, however imperfectly, but a soul that rises to the heavens and cures the layer that makes life possible on earth. And it does not smell like bleach.

Still Alice is the very opposite of a tale told by Bellow on exactly the same theme, but traveling in reverse direction. The movie is a tale of a disappearing self like the drip drip drip of a tap that gets faster and louder as each minute of the film passes and the inevitability of the self’s vanishing proceeds relentlessly and incrementally apace, recorded by camera work that is minutely fine-tuned and calibrated and to music that has the power to move without ever being noticed. Inevitability may be the given, but what is not given is the way Alice handles her condition, with logic, with common sense, and, finally, with a surrender to her heart as she loses the skills in her head.

Instead of ozone serving as a link between the loss and the rebirth, the loss and the rebirth save the ozone layer. In the end, while Bellow always tried to balance his writing between realism and the creative imagination, Still Alice is a film deeply rooted in the real, deeply rooted in hard science. But it takes the imagination of her actress daughter, Lydia, to bring salvation to that dying world. She is the only child of Alice’s three children that can and does accomplish the deed, for she is the only one that is an artist, an actor on the stage of life in which the imagination and emotions provide the proscenium upon which all life must be built, not the intellect.

At one time in the movie, Alice tells her daughter Lydia, a story. Lydia was the one child with whom she had the most strained relationship because her daughter insisted in following her muse rather than the hard realism of her mother. Alice tells Lydia a tale of a butterfly that she was told by her own mother when Alice at the age of seven became so upset when she learned that a butterfly lived its life of beauty for only one month. It isn’t the length of time one lives, but the intensity and the quality and the beauty that one brings to that life that counts, Alice’s mother told her. It is not a tragedy for a butterfly to have a short life. What matters is the beautiful life they have when they live. And the only memory Alice had to retain was that she had had a beautiful life.

What, Alice asks of Lydia, if I don’t recognize who you are and I do not recall how much you love me? Lydia replies, then I will remind you and show you how much I deeply love you. Then you will believe me. It is the now that counts even more than all the memories.

In this tale of losing oneself, in which, in Alice’s words, one experiences those moments when you are most afflicted, the self, instead of being within, floats before you just beyond your grasp. You feel not only that you are losing it, but that you are totally lost. For if you cannot control and keep hold of yourself, you cannot choose which memories to lose and which to cherish. As your yesterdays disappear, so your hopes and expectations of the future also vanish.

This is what Alice tells an assembly of neurologists and specialists in Alzheimer’s disease when she addresses them, lecturing as if she were still a professor in full control of her faculties, but who took three days to write the short speech and can only deliver it by crossing out each line in yellow as she reads so that she can retain her place in the speech and not forget where she is in her talk. Though she forgets, and though her ability to hope goes with it, she is still Alice and today still matters. So the opportunity to lecture again, to exercise her great gift of understanding language, its functions and its processes, to use her gift of eloquence once more, probably for the last time, was to her a great gift and, for the moment, she could bask in the sheer joy of the feeling it gave her.

There is not an ounce of melodrama, of false sentimentality, of saccharine sweetness in the whole movie. Juliane Moore plays Alice with subtlety and restrained understatement. Mostly, it is through her face, through her own reactions to each new discovery of her loss, that she allows us to experience the deterioration alongside and from within her. Perhaps the co-directors deserve some credit. For Richard Glatzer had some deep understanding of what Alice was going through because he suffered from the neurodegenerative disorder of Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. His co-director, and his partner in real life, Wash Westmoreland, experienced Glatzer’s loss of self alongside him.

As Alice’s loses herself, she also gradually loses those closest to her – her devoted husband, John Howland played by Alec Baldwin, her older daughter, Anna Howland, played by Kate Bosworth, and her son, Tom Howland played by Hunter Parish. Except Lydia. For when she watched Lydia perform in a play – I believe it was Angels in America by Tony Kushner – and she could not even follow and recognize that the play was a reflection of what she was experiencing, and that Lydia could give the part so much power and strength of emotion because she had directly asked Alice how Alice had felt, how and what she really felt and was not satisfied with an answer like “OK,” or “It could be worse” or “not bad.”

Lydia wanted to know what Alice actually felt. Alice told her. But Alice could no longer comprehend what she saw and what she had witnessed. But it did not matter. For what she grasped was that the play – and life itself – was about love. Alice knew what she had felt. She felt not only that this had been the theme of the play, but she felt her daughter’s intense love for her, the intense love of the daughter with whom she had had such a strained relationship. And that love lived on in her heart, not in the network of neurons in her brain.

At one point in the movie when she looks at herself in the mirror and does not recognize the shrinking woman with the dull hair and the pale skin of her face and a head sitting on a body that no longer seemed to be able to support it as she shrivelled up before her and our eyes to match the necrotic behaviour of the neurons in her head, when she no longer could recognize her own self, she knew it was time. She spread soap suds or toothpaste or shaving cream over her face in that mirror. But by the time she recognized it was time, it was too late and all sense of time and memory and control over her life had passed her by. Claude Jutra, like myself also a medical student who never practiced medicine, whom I think was Canada’s best film director ever (I rank Mon Oncle Antoine among my top ten films), knew when it was time. He too had Alzheimer’s. When he was still able, in November 1986, he disappeared into the St. Lawrence River, a case of life imitating art for that is what one of his heroes had done. Alice lived on to teach us a deeper meaning to life.

I cried through the movie, not so much for Alice as for my brother Al. He had a blastoma in his brain when he was only 62 at the peak of his career as a cardiologist. I cried for the memories of watching him lose one cognitive and then one physical function after another. I cried as I watched everything that made Al the imperfect human being who he had been, vanish. I cried as I watched him disappear over a period of twelve months until he was simply a living, breathing corpse in a coma on his back that could neither see nor hear nor speak nor feel. I cried because I remember spending a month with him in Arizona as he sought to benefit from the latest far out experiment in combating his type of cancer, but each day he clearly and unequivocally deteriorated. I cried because I saw him fight for his life and to control his life, but, unlike Alice, by surrendering himself to be a guinea pig rather than, like Alice, using conniving and tricks and mental exercises to retain her memory and control for as long as she could. I cried at my anger at him for giving into his mystical propensities and grasping onto the handle of false hope instead of retaining the solid ground of his scientific training. I cried because, at the end, when the magic of any hope would have been relevant, he was past his due date. I cried because Alice as she became sicker evolved to become more open to her own children and turned into an even more extraordinary butterfly, while Al had turned himself back into a larvae, a ghost and a demon, in the hope that he could re-emerge once more through a second metamorphosis as a butterfly. I cried for each of his three children. I cried because I had not been able to follow him back into the new cocoon that he had made for himself and from which he would never again emerge. I cried because I deeply loved my brother and have missed him ever since. I cried because I was unable to convey that feeling Lydia conveyed to Alice before Al’s mind was totally eaten away by cancer.

Owls, Memory and Prophecy

Owls, Memory and Prophecy

by

Howard Adelman

Last evening we went out with friends to eat at a wonderful Greek restaurant on Ashbridges Bay on the shores of Lake Ontario in the east end of the city. When I was waiting outside the house both for my wife to come out and for our friends to arrive and pick us up, I heard the constant and repeated clucks rather than songs of a plump gray bird just larger than a typical sparrow flitting from one branch to another in the pine tree in our front yard. He was moving too frenetically for me to get a good look, but I did notice he had no noticeable colour except for several white streaks on its upper torso. The beak looked black, but I could not be sure, and its breast was lighter gray rather than white. Its tail seemed unusually short.

Needless to say, I am not a birdwatcher and would not really know a sparrow from a warbler, wren, flycatcher or vireo, let alone differentiate among the very wide variety of each species. I wished then that I had one of those apps on a cell phone where you can record the sound of the bird and the phone will tell you what kind you are looking at. Alternatively, you could take a picture and the phone would tell you which type of bird it is. My wife insists I carry around her old phone – mostly I forget – so she can reach me in emergencies, even though she knows I rarely notice if it is ringing and have to be told by a stranger annoyed by my not answering the phone that I should answer. In any case, my phone is an unsmart one, so out of date that it is only useful for making phone calls if I would ever learn to use it or even just hear it. I do feel it, however, if I put it onto “vibrate”

All this is beside the point since, as usual, I did not have the phone on me, though at the moment I really wanted such a phone to make up for my inabilities at keen observation, ignoring the fact that even if I had a smart phone with the right app, I would be so clumsy at figuring out how to use it that the bird would have long started to migrate south again for the winter. Nevertheless, I longed for such an app for I could not really describe the colour let alone shape of its bill though I had been watching the bird for what seemed to be a very long time but was probably only 2-3 minutes. Was the cape a different colour than the feathers on its back? Did it have rings around its eyes? I could picture my embarrassment when my wife queried me and gradually became exasperated at my inability to answer.

When Nancy did emerge from the front door – our friends had not yet arrived – I told her about the plump grey bird that was just larger than a sparrow but had suddenly gone silent and seemingly flew off. I described the repeated clucks and had heard higher pitched tweets and a slightly lower pitched melodious chord but could not identify their source so I pointed out what I thought was a closed in grey nest in the crotch of a branch and the main trunk that I thought (to myself) looked like a very small owl with two twigs sticking up like ears. I thought that the plump bird larger than a sparrow was trying to protect its nest.

“That’s an owl,” Nancy announced after one look.  “It’s a very small owl. Its eyes are closed but you can clearly see them. Looks like…” – she gave me a name but I cannot remember what she said. So I looked up pictures of owls this morning. It could have been a screech owl or a young long eared or short eared owl, but I know she did not give me those names. It is evidently very unusual to see an owl in the city. Nancy had brought my attention to the hoot of an owl that very morning and concluded that this must have been the owl she had heard. She then digressed into a story of how she and her father would go hiking at night at their farm tramping through the crisp crust of piled up snow with special field glasses looking for owls, particularly great snow owls. All the while I was feeling stupid for not being able to distinguish between an owl sitting perfectly still and a nest. But I excused myself. After all, I had never seen a real owl before except a stuffed one in our museum.

The only owl I really knew was the Owl of Minerva and the famous saying of Georg Friedrich Hegel from his Phenomenology of Spirit that the “Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk”. The Owl of Minerva was the name of the most important journal of Hegelian studies and was meant to convey that we, as philosophers, can only look backwards to understand the characteristic of an age. We are lousy prophets. Wisdom can only be retrospective and only in hindsight do we have 20/20 vision. That is why philosophy cannot be prescriptive but only analytic and phenomenological, focused on what we have already experienced.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses that I just referred to in a recent blog, a crow bitches that it is not regarded with divine worship because it has been displaced by the unworthy owl which has an undeserved reputation for wisdom. The crow was a terrible gossip and spread the word that the Owl created by Minerva was really Princess Nycitimene, the daughter of Epopeus, the King of Lesbos, who raped his own child. That is why owls skulk around in the night and are so hard to spot. They live in eternal shame as victims of incest.

Whether they are or are not ashamed, or whether they are or are not ashamed because of a past sexual trauma or because they are incapable of understanding the future, they do take pride (and refuge) in their superior acuity in understanding the past. Of course, this is an ironic inversion of the Greek belief that owls should be revered for their wisdom because they can see so well in the dark – and the future is always black and provides little help to enlighten us about what is about to happen. The owl became the symbol of Athens and associated with Athena not only to be identified with universal and eternal truth but even with the capacity not simply to prophecy but to help bring about a desired outcome as a symbol of Athena’s intervention in the affairs of humans. Hegel inverted the Greek understanding of wisdom by insisting that wisdom be rooted in history and in retrospective analysis as we look wide-eyed and startled at the mess we just left behind.

However, lately I have been betraying my Hegelian philosophical roots. I used to say that if I prophesied something, especially something bad, it would never happen because I would always be wrong. So if I feared a terrible outcome I could really relax since I was so bad at prophecy I could be content that my bleak prognostication would not take place. I have strayed and betrayed my philosophical foundations and engaged in something more akin to Hebrew prophecy. Sometimes, when I am being particularly flippant and superficial, I will blame it on my increasingly failing memory. I cannot analyze the past if I cannot remember it. So if I am going to dance among the shadows, I might as well try to discern the character of the shadows of the future even if I cannot tell the difference between an owl and a bird’s nest right in front of my eyes.

I have been more and more encouraged by recent past successes over the last decade or more. Of course, it was really not hard to discern that the Iraq War was a folly right from the beginning as well as an immoral and politically stupid undertaking by the Georg Bush Jr. administration. Certainly, the ridiculous way the Americans followed up their quick military victory with the dissolution of the Iraq military as well as the civil administration given its previous control by the Baath Party all but guaranteed a developing insurgency and the soundness of the many like myself who outlined disaster. Though the Afghan War, unlike the Iraq War, had been partially politically and ethically justified, there was plenty of evidence from the past that it too would be a disastrous quagmire. So we critics were not just critical bench-sitting quarterbacks in the bleachers who had perfect vision because we were engaged in hindsight. The outcome was just all-too-obvious.

This prophetic propensity has not only taken place concerned with major events of worldwide importance but with Canadian events. In January, I co-authored a draft of a paper that in part dealt with the temporary worker program in Canada and, in particular, that part of the program focused on unskilled workers. In one section, we referred to all the scholarly literature that pointed to the terrible outcomes of such programs – particularly the problem of overstayers and the inevitable exploitation of such workers, that has not yet been part of the current brouhaha in Canada over the current program and forced Minister Kenny to shut the program across the country applied to the restaurant business. The current political mess had become a scandal because of the evidence of Canadian long-term employees being laid off and replaced by temporary foreign workers. We had not anticipated that this negativity would result so quickly. Although our timing was totally off and our focus has been peripheral to the main discussion, we could still claim credit for our muted prophecy about the disastrous character of the program.

Debates focused on whether employers really needed such workers or not and the effects on lowering wages in the particular industry. We had suggested that refugees be brought in for such jobs, sponsored by a partnership of businesses and Canadian churches, synagogues, mosques and community groups. The latter could orient the refugees and monitor their work conditions. The former could provide the monies to employ them and get them initially settled. It would be a positive sum game because the employers would get loyal workers, refugees would get a secure home and sponsors could get the great pleasure of saving lives and helping anther eager new Canadian settle into our great country. And there would be no problem of overstayers. In the next month we will be travelling to Halifax and Calgary to discuss launching pilot programs in those two jurisdictions to see how the  program works.

Who says that philosophers are useless even if we do rely on owls that can only look backwards and cannot even see a real owl when perched right in front of us?

Survival and Slavery: Behar-Bechukotai – Leviticus 25:1-27:34.05.05.13

Survival and Slavery: Behar-Bechukotai – Leviticus 25:1-27:34 05.05.13

by

Howard Adelman

It is Sunday, May 5th. This parsha should have been sent out on Friday, May 3rd. However, Friday was a gorgeous day in Toronto with the sky clear and temperatures in the twenties centigrade. When I failed to complete the blog in the early morning, I was doomed. For after a long winter, there was so much clean up work to do outside. The day was so beautiful, that it was six o’clock and I had not even noticed the time fly. Such are the seductions of sun and sky and warmth, especially after the deprivations of a long and harsh winter. Maybe the experience is relevant to today’s subject matter – giving in to the seductions of slavery to the Ba’al Hadad, the lord or master in heaven who rules over the assembly of all the other natural deities or spirits. Today, Sunday, has been as beautiful a day as Friday and Ba’al no less enticing.

This section of Leviticus that was read yesterday in synagogue is largely about the jubilee year, the second sabbatical year after seven, that is, every 50 years. A number of principles of business ethics are set forth, largely a tribal rather than a universal ethic as when 24:14 advises: “when you make a sale to your fellow Jew or make a purchase from the hand of your fellow Jew, you shall not wrong one another.” It even has a strange formula on the price you should pay for a crop depending on the length of time between jubilee years. “The more [the remaining] years, you shall increase its purchase [price], and the fewer the [remaining] years, you shall decrease its purchase [price], because he is selling you a number of crops.” (24:16) Moral norms and not the invisible hand of the market were major factors in determining prices.

Beyond these admonitions to be fair, never wrong a fellow Jew and consideration for the destitute, what I find most interesting are the commandments concerning slavery in chapter 25. There are four kinds of slaves:
a) Jewish slaves of Jews;
b) Jewish slaves of non-Jews;
c) non-Jewish slaves of Jews;
d) non-Jewish slaves of non-Jews.
There are no prescriptions for the fourth category, reinforcing the principle that these ethical norms are tribal or national rather than universal.

Further, how you handle each of the first three categories reinforces this perspective. Jewish slaves of Jews have to be freed by the Jubilee year – or, according to Deuteronomy, in a sabbatical year. During the period of ownership, Jewish slaves cannot be worked with rigour. (25:46) Thirdly, there is no provision for making the children of Jewish slaves your slaves or bequeathing Jewish slaves as part of your inheritance to your children. In contrast, chapter 25 reads:
44. Your male slave or female slave whom you may have from the nations that are around you, from them you may acquire a male slave or a female slave.
45. And also from the children of the residents that live among you, from them you may acquire [slaves] and from their family that is with you whom they begot in your land, and they shall become your inheritance.
46. You shall hold onto them as an inheritance for your children after you, as acquired property, and may thus have them serve you forever. But as for your brethren, the children of Israel, a man shall not work his brother with rigor.

Jews have a duty to redeem other Jews from slavery to non-Jews. They have no such obligations to non-Jewish slaves of non-Jews. Further, their own non-Jewish slaves are an inheritance for their children. Jewish slaves have to be freed. The children of non-Jewish slaves become your indentured servants. These strictures vary between Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy and are quite different than the provisions of the Talmud which offers universal norms governing the treatment of any slave. But this is not a Talmudic but a Torah commentary, and only very incidentally a comparative Torah study.

How do slaves become slaves? They are captured in war. Or they are indigent and enter into slavery so they will not die. Or they enter into slavery to satisfy a debt. Slavery is a product of economic or physical coercion. Bondage to another is slavery. On the other hand, bondage to the Lord and God of the Israelites is chosen by a free person, by someone who stands upright and was freed by the Lord their God from slavery to a human master in Egypt. But is the contrast between the two forms of bondage so clear?

Certainly, if the Israelites obey God, keep shabat, follow His commandments, do not worship idols and make God a centre of their lives, they will be rewarded with prosperous, secure and healthy lives with productive farms and freed from the scourge of their enemies. But, as chapter 26 makes abundantly clear, if the Israelites fail to let God live in their midst and if they break His commandments, then they will suffer from all manner of physical and psychological diseases, from tuberculosis to depression. Their enemies will smite them, wild animals will attack them, their livestock will die and their land will yield no crops. Buildings will collapse around them, the cities laid waste and the Israelites will be scattered among the nations. They will live in paranoid fear frightened even by the shaking of a leaf. If that were not enough, they will become cannibals and devour their own children.

It is a choice without an option. Israelites can either live as free men with secure and prosperous lives in bondage to their Lord or be destroyed as a nation and as healthy individuals. Slavery to another offers no positive inducements except survival. Bondage to the Lord freely undertaken offers enormous benefits. Not making that choice offers consequences far more dire than simply being enslaved by another human being.

It is important to link the bondage to the Lord in contrast to the bondage to other human beings to make clear that they are both forms of bondage, but with radically different outcomes. Further, the connection is important to discard all the Torah apologetics that, in the desire to portray Judaism as enlightened, want to rationalize slavery either as a concession to surrounding society until the ideal of emancipation could be realized while trying to be humane and limiting its injustices, or as a form of witnessing to a higher standard of ethical practice while engaged in slavery. The rationalizations are just so much hogwash. Jewish provisions for slavery may have been doctrinally much more moderate, but in behavioural terms, the treatment offered was just one variation among a wide spectrum of practices without any evidence that they offered the most enlightened form of servitude. Certainly Jews treated non-Jewish slaves somewhat differently for they were partially converted and, if freed by various routes, they could join the Jewish community as full citizens. Further, slaves could marry their masters. Ancient slavery, whether of Jews or non-Jews, was not based on a somatic racist presumption.

There were, nevertheless, other principles and conceptions that undermined the possibility of manumission than a somatic racist conception. Though Plato also did not have a racist view, and though slavery was a side consideration in his concerns, nevertheless, Plato depicted slavery as an intellectual deficiency. Slaves, in Gregory Vlastos’ depiction of Plato’s views, suffered from a deficiency of logos. A slave could comprehend and understand but only had doxa. Therefore, it was useless to reason with a slave. You merely issued orders and did not “spoil” them by admonitions or explanations. They were to be motivated by rewards and punishments, fair ones in each case, but through external pressures rather the any internal intellectual cultivation or intercourse.

This is not the view in Leviticus. Slaves from the surrounding tribes of Canaanites, even though treated differently than Jewish slaves, were regarded as fully human. They were not defined as inferior forms of being. Their situations, not their character as humans, differed. Aristotle, however he differed with Plato, and however more articulate his view of slaves, had a similar doctrine. In Book I, chapters ii-vii of his Politics and in Book VII of Nichomachean Ethics, slaves are depicted as slaves by nature fit only to be ruled and not rule. As men are to animals, so Greeks are towards Barbarians, those fit to rule and those fit to be ruled. Aristotle offered a more encompassing doctrine of slavery than simply a rule of treatment for those found to be slaves. The natural character of slaves determines their condition and not just their treatment. So obtaining a slave through war or economic destitution of the slave is not what provides any entitlement to own a slave. Rather, the relationship of the master to the slave is blamed on the nature of the slave.

In the second century BC, Cato the Elder offered a manual for how Romans should treat their slaves who probably constituted 30% of the population, a ratio akin to that of the upper south, such as the Virginias and the Carolinas, at the time of the American Civil War. They were to be given adequate provisions and clothing and drink to sustain life but not enough to support a family or to facilitate their reproduction, a situation very different from that described in Leviticus. On the other hand, Seneca, the Stoic, offered a perspective more akin to that of the ancient Israelites but even more “enlightened”. He not only considered slaves and free Romans to be equally human, but entitled to equal treatment. For all men, including Romans, were slaves. In Letter 47 to Lucilius, he wrote: “I am glad to learn…that you live on friendly terms with your slaves. This befits a sensible and well-educated man like yourself. ‘They are slaves,’ people declare. Nay, rather they are men. ‘Slaves!’ No, comrades. ‘Slaves!’ No, they are unpretentious friends. ‘Slaves!’ No, they are our fellow-slaves, if one reflects that Fortune has equal rights over slaves and free men alike. (my italics) That is why I smile at those who think it degrading for a man to dine with his slave.”
If we compare the position of Jews as slaves in Egypt to the position of Canaanite slaves in the Jewish community to the treatment by Jews of slaves in different parts of the modern world, we will perhaps understand the laws and ethical norms governing the ancient Israelites in a somewhat clearer light. For example, whereas slavery was very marginal to the economic life of American northerners in the nineteenth century who lived in a very racist society, it was not marginal to the Israelites but an integral part of their society.

In the Torah, 600,000 male heads of households purportedly conquered Canaan. For many, that figure seems implausible given that so many died of the plague before reaching the promised land and also contradicts other data, such as the actual census of first born and the number of men fit to do battle – about 40,000 according to Joshua (4:13). According to some commentators, the figure was only 600,000 if you count souls and not living men and include all the ancestors counting back to Abraham. The number of living returnees, including women and children, was likely about 120,000 rather than several million. On the other hand, if 600,000 represents all the living Israelites at the time of Exodus and, approximately the same number when they enter Canaan, then there were about 75,000 who could fight in battle but still not 600,000.

Whatever the absolute number, the Israelites outnumbered each of the Canaanite tribes including the Amorites, Hittites, Girgashites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites who, only when allied together, were larger than the numbers of Israelites. (Deuteronomy 7:1) The Israelites were in the same position as the Egyptians at the time of Exodus. Just as the tribes of Israel demographically threatened the Egyptians, the population indigenous to Canaan at the time the Israelites returned to the land threatened the population of Israelites, a situation not too dissimilar to the situation in Israel/Palestine/Jordan today.

If we compare the situation of the ratio of whites to black slaves in the early nineteenth century, the only equivalent to the situation of the Israelites, who can barely hold their own in numbers to the surrounding population, is the situation in the deep southern United States on the eve of the Civil War where the ratio of whites to blacks was about 56% to 44%. In the upper south, Blacks made up about 24% of the population while in the rest of the United States, Blacks were a relatively small minority. In contrast, in most of the Caribbean, Blacks constituted a vast majority. In Brazil, Blacks were a minority and did not threaten the white domination of the country.

Though there was a demographic battle for supremacy after the return of the Israelites to Canaan, akin to the demographic battle in the southern United States, the battle was exacerbated by the strict requirements of what was needed to keep the Israelites versus the southern whites united. In the latter case, it was race and the one drop rule. If you were part Black genetically, you were fully Black socially. The Whites only managed to keep their superior standing by huge efforts of oppression to keep family formation among Blacks very limited. In ancient Israel, the Israelites also cohabited with the local Canaanites and often took Canaanite wives. But the differences were not racial and Canaanites could become Israelites and Israelites intermarried and became Canaanites. Benjamites seemed to be the exception for they were not only the most formidable fighting force among the twelve tribes, but also the most inhospitable and insular tribe wary of intermarriage not only with Canaanites but even with members of the other Hebrew tribes until they were decimated in the civil war against the rest of the Israelites and forced to take non-Israelite wives.

Recall that Judges 3.5-3.7 reads:
5 The Israelites lived among the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. 6 They took the Canaanites’ daughters as wives and gave their daughters to the Canaanites; they worshiped their gods as well. 7 The Israelites did evil in the Lord’s sight. They forgot the Lord their God and worshiped the Baals and the Asherahs.

Integration and assimilation are not values held to be worthy. Quite the reverse, they are the dangers. In modern Israel, the danger of intermarriage with the competing population of Palestinians is minimized by ideological politics and religious affiliation rather than by race. Further, the only demographic group that exceeds the rate of reproduction of the Palestinians is that group which is most inhospitable to integration and intermarriage – the ultra-orthodox.

So if you do not decimate the surrounding population and do not engage in ethnic cleansing, and if you do not choose to oppress them in other ways by limiting their ability to procreate, then that surrounding population will pose a demographic danger, especially if your group is the superior and more powerful group but allows extensive intermarriage, then your inherited group faces an existential danger. The standard laws of sociological behaviour will come into play as outward intermarriage by the downwardly mobile will exceed in-migration by the upwardly mobile. More and more members of your group will either adhere to the cultural practices of the competing group or, at the very least, lose the strength of the adherence to their own precepts which provided unity and strength for the dominant group. It is the law of revenge of the bondsmen against their masters. The more you succeed in mastering the norms of the dominant culture, the more you endanger the particularist norms of your sub-culture.

What are the choices? You can try to remain insular and ill-disposed to even co-habiting with those less rigid in their methods of group survival. You can focus on both reproduction and physical strength, which is what the orthodox in Israel have done and what the Haredim are about to do now that they will be forced to serve in both the army and the economic work force. They will surrender to the force of numbers but through numbers and strict enforcement of group norms, will seek to turn the tables on their in-group masters.

Why will the secular and modern lose out? After all, with their military prowess and with the amazing reputation as the start-up nation par excellence, Israel is now an economic and technological as well as military powerhouse, even further ahead in the new knowledge economy because of the high proportion of investment in human capital. As a result of the Israeli success combined with the success of those in the diaspora, even Greek socialists now regard Israel as a model according to Anna Diamentopolou, the Greek Minister for Education, Lifelong Learning and Religious Affairs.

Nevertheless, these successful secular Israelis and the majority of Jews in the diaspora will lose out, not as individuals, but as a culture and society. Their minority sub-culture will become a minor variation is a spectrum of the modern world. Jews and Israelis will have become a nation like every other nation. When Israel finally makes peace with all their neighbours and are freed of any crushing physical danger, the threat from without will become even stronger because of the attractions of the enlightenment values of the dominant imperial culture and the gradual surrender of the norms that provide their insularity as a group. If they choose to treat those with whom they intermarry in an “enlightened” way, by inviting them in to join the group instead of strict prohibitions against, then, simply statistically, the norms ensuring group coherence and, thereby, survival will grow weaker.

The diaspora has already lost the linguistic mode of group survival with the loss of Yiddish or Ladino and without replacing it with Hebrew as the group’s subculture’s language. Israelis in the next generation will continue to keep Hebrew as the language of their sub-culture and as an in-group language as they increasingly use English as the language of the dominant culture and of the global economy, especially as they pursue success in that dominant culture. Of course, Israel will be led by the educated elites, but also by the street through the message of music which can even penetrate the Satmar sect as the Israeli movie, God’s Neighbours illustrates. Just as the dominant economic market place has an invisible hand, the cunning of reason will operate as a pincer movement from both above and below to threaten group survival and instil a bifurcation of values in both the educated elites and in the street culture of even those who take pride in their survival skills as a tribe.

What are the real choices? If the majority of the elite, first in the diaspora and then in Israel, choose success as the cost of spiritual self-exile and gradual absorption into the dominant imperial high culture, then the sub-culture dies even if it retains a patina of difference. If those groups with the highest rate of reproduction are forced into a world that esteems physical prowess as its culture is subverted through the music of the streets, then the sub-culture will survive but will eventually go to war with the dominant indigenous imperial culture and that civil war will make the war with the Palestinians seem like a piece of cake. For Civil Wars are the most cruel and ruthless.

This jeremiad as humankind is in the process of making its next greatest advance that inherently must entail the rejection of tradition and particularism, and that especially threatens the Jews as a sub-culture who sustained their identity by becoming a community of memory while also mastering the dominant culture, need not take place. But until the Jews in the diaspora and Israelis learn to become one at the same time as they develop a new form of dualism, a schizophrenia that allows them to be both moderns and a community of memory at one and the same time, neither Jews not Israelis will survive as a sub-culture. But whatever the fearsome prognostications facing Israelis, they will survive longer as a substantive sub-culture than the enlightened Jews of the diaspora.

Obama14: Virtue Ethics and the Redemption of White America Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending

The copy is attached as well.

Obama14: Virtue Ethics and the Redemption of White America

Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending

by

Howard Adelman

Part II History and Redemption

Last night, Nancy, I and our friend, Lynn, went to see David Russell’s comic romance, Silver Linings Playbook. Pat Solatano played by Bradley Cooper had just finished a term of eighth months in a mental institution for beating the bejeezus out of a history teacher (who better?) employed at the school where his wife taught after he found the two together in a shower. He lost his own job as a teacher, lost his wife and his own home and returned to live with his parents. His mother, played by Jacki Weaver, delivers her dry humour with impeccable timing. His father, played by Robert DeNiro, as our friend Lynn quipped, has recently carved a brilliant career playing criminal nutcases living on the precipitous edge of normalcy.

One of the very hilarious scenes is the occasion when DeNiro parleys his bet on the outcome of a football game and ties it to the outcome of a dance competition that his son has entered with Tiffany (played by Jennifer Lawrence) as the most clear-edge portrait of a woman I have ever seen on screen, clear-edged to the point of madness. The movie is effectively about parleying bets until they tumble over and under one another like a sex scene to the accompaniment of a washing machine and the accumulations that Adrian in Julian Barnes’ novel, The Sense of an Ending, speculates to be the essential calculus for understanding human relationships. Like the best of romantic comedies, it is a story of unrequited love and arrested development, of sex postponed but culminating in marriage in the highest tradition paid to the secular religion of our age, romantic love.

The movie, Silver Linings Playbook, is a reflection of a dominant contemporary myth dressed up in a jester’s costume. In contrast, The Sense of an Ending has a great deal to teach us about reality. While Adrian behaved as if life was a parley, Tony had behaved as if it was just a matter of addition and subtraction and had maintained his sanity and equilibrium thereby. Unfortunately, Adrian lost his bet and ended with nothing. Why did the best and the brightest in this case lose?

Since the four boys had not yet been granted status as adults and allowed to become full participants in the religion of our time, romantic love, they could only engage in idle speculation about why Robson committed suicide. The consensus seemed to be that it was just an intellectual balancing act and a scientific commitment to the principle of population stability. Since he was bringing one new life into the world, Robson would have to leave it. After all, Guitar in Song of Solomon played according to the same principle by killing the same number of Whites as Blacks killed by Whites who escaped being held responsible for their actions. Even if the motives and the outcomes were different, the principle of balance was the same.

Except there is a suggestion, a hint (a feint?), that Adrian demurred. Was it an adumbration of the end? Perhaps Adrian’s final act was an exercise in absolute freedom and determining control over life and death consistent with Camus’ view of the ultimate in freedom. That is what we are led for much of the novel by Tony’s ruminations to believe. The real question in life for the boys was whether they would make a real choice in their lives instead of remaining on the sidelines as bystanders and become the protagonists portrayed in fiction who loved and lost, who suffered and were ecstatic, who were betrayed and even killed, who saw power and justice and engaged in revolution and wars. Real literature, in the end was about "character developed over time," virtues and vices and not the follies and foibles of romantic comedy.

If so, then wallowing in fleeting memory was not where it’s at, as the four boys seem to see. They would have to wrestle with history. But what if history was just the historiography as relayed by the victors as Tony believed, or an onion sandwich as Colin cynically joked with the same old oscillations between war and peace, tyranny and rebellion, always stuffed with the same delicious delicacies that left you with a foul breath? Adrian, however, offered another option: "History is the certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation." As Frank Kermode wrote – of which more later – a crisis is not about what is out there but about how we have framed the narrative to wrap our minds about what is out there — "crisis is a way of thinking about one’s moment, and not inherent in the moment itself."

This was the lesson that Barack Obama had learned in grappling with his own memoirs and trying to get a grasp on how power is acquired and exercised. History is the crossing point between individual virtues and collective actions. History was not trying to subsume events and actions under laws of probability or certainty as Carl Hempel had argued. Nor was it the empathetic re-enactment of the decisions individuals made in accordance with the ethical and other norms they upheld so that we could understand the reasons why they decided to do what they did as Bill Dray had argued. History was a conundrum that had to be puzzled through like a detective story or like a piece of fiction that was about history as a detective story by ploughing through vaporous messages from the past and constructing a quasi-coherent narrative to frame it.

The vapours rarely explored concerning historical figures of action are the fictions they read and not just the fictions they write or the serious books they read. Julian Barnes makes my case. To himself, Tony Webster, the narrator, ends up as a bystander, an individual of no consequence except as a reporter and interpreter of Adrian. And his girlfriend of college days ends up with Adrian, in part, because the books Veronica owned were both ones she read and, more importantly, ones that "seemed to be an organic continuation of her mind," whereas the books that Tony had on his shelf, if he honestly read them, were "functionally separate straining to define character." If you are or are to become a person of history, then the books you own, read and love are extensions and revelations of your character. On the other hand, it is not clear to me whether you have to choose to be clear-edged while in practice being anything but, or choose mystery and manipulation over clarity as many politicians and manipulative men and women are wont to do.

In Barnes’ novel, the first iteration of strong feelings, instead of ambiguous expressions of longing and self-doubt, comes from Adrian after Tony had inquired about Jack, Veronica’s brother, who is ahead of Adrian at Cambridge but also studying moral sciences. After several initial non-committal comments about Jack, that he has heard and read about him, Adrian becomes vehement and barks, "I hate the way the English have of not being serious about being serious." Obama, even through he wears his semi-permanent pearly smile with aplomb, is always serious about being serious. In contrast, Tony had stagnated and his girlfriend Veronica began to introduce more space between herself and Tony.

That was because Tony had chosen survival rather than life. The irony is that the Tee of Life in the Garden of Evil is about choosing survival and not entering into life and history. What most people do not recognize is that the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden is not the option of immortality. That was never an option for either Adam or Eve. They were humans. If they ate of the Tree of Knowledge they became self-conscious of death, self-conscious of the tension between eros and thanatos. But then what was the Tree of life? It was Tony’s choice – choosing the safe path, the peaceable path the path of self-preservation rather than risk. His marriage to the clear-edged Margaret, his second wife – and their split – would follow the path of least resistance as his life became more and more empty and more and more non-committal. Obama chose the path less travelled by. Adrian in the end chose not to walk the path, but at least he evidently chose. In contrast, Tony "began to feel a more general remorse – a feeling somewhere between self-pity and self-hatred – about my whole life. All of it. I had lost the love of my wife. I had abandoned the ambitions I had entertained. I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded – and how pitiful that was."

But what about Adrian? In the end Tony’s mother appeared to have it right. Adrian was just too clever. He thought things out and had the disciplined character of a man of courage to act on what he believed. He acted on those conclusions and left common sense behind, unlike Tony who had a surfeit of common sense. To his enormous chagrin, in the end his common sense made no sense at all.

Adrian appeared to have suffered the hubris of rationalism. Rationalism is the soul mate of romanticism and the two are wedded together in married agony in our contemporary secular faith. The former go out into the world under the illusion that man is a possessive individualist driven by greed with the tools of a utilitarian calculating brain. The latter stay at home or go to the movies and watch chick flicks and dream of a prince charming, even if that prince charming has just been released from a mental hospital even though he still has not gained mastery of his anger and rage, even if the black horse of rage yoked to the white horse is really in charge of setting the direction. And what happens if a man of principle possessed of pure practical reason and the powers of deduction and not the instrumental powers of calculating reason, is about to enter the world at large and meets a member of the opposite sex who is a possessive individualist, who is an instrumental calculator? It appears that he does not have a chance. He is doomed, especially since he, as well as Tony, had even been blind to the identity of the super manipulator.

Tony would, with his friends, turn what they believed to be definite in memory into anecdote. The rest they relegated to uncertainty and, with overlapping and backtracking that uncertainty in turn was relegated to the storehouse of shreds and patches of false memories put away in storage boxes we seal and do not revisit even though we continue to pay the storage charges. Decades would go by before chance intervened once again and the story could resume with time running backwards as frozen anecdotes were cast aside in favour of critical inquiry. Until that time, Tony had survived, had eaten of the Tree of Life, and history was still being written by survivors rather than victors.

As time moves on there is less rather than more certainty and less rather than more corroboration of what your life has been. Further, though history that happens underneath our nose ought to be the clearest, it is the most deliquescent dissolving and melting into the anecdotes that freeze the past into current memory dollops.

But what if that which is deliquescent entails not only evaporation, as when the hot frying pan is plunged into the cold water in the sink, but liquefaction takes place and absorption from the air brings a dehydrated life back to a vital presence? A mere little document can do it – return memories frozen in anecdote back into the lively process of historical discovery and revelation. For the turning point in the novel comes when, four decades later, Tony himself re-reads the mean-spirited letter of vituperation he had sent both Adrian and Veronica after Adrian and Veronica had gotten together. For aside from the clear edged but not peaceable piece of correspondence, we get a glimpse of what Tony could have been and had not become, the counterfactuals of history so revealing of what perceived in juxtaposition could have been. If only Tony could have married the clear and distinct ideas of Descartes with the sentiment and empathy of David Hume and Adam Smith. It is for the absence of the latter not the clarity of the former that Tony begins to feel remorse and regret.

What might have happened if Barrack Obama had a Tony as a best friend when he was young? Not very likely! Tony wasn’t a Boswell. In any case, Adrian checked out and decided not to become a Johnson. 70% through the novel, Tony asks a key question: "What if by some means remorse can be made to flow backwards, can be transmuted into simple guilt, then apologised for, and then forgiven? What if you can prove you weren’t the bad guy she took you for, and she is willing to accept your proof?" Tony remained deluded. He just never got it.

But what about Adrian, why did he opt out, not just mentally, but altogether? He had so much promise when he went up to Cambridge. Was it the outcome of what follows from a pure principle of practical reasoning? Was it really the grand refusal of "an existential gift"? Or did he act for more mundane reasons? As the novel progresses towards the end and new affective states reopen blocked-off neural pathways, we are taken by surprise at what we learn and are forced to rewrite our memories though not our histories.

Cambridge enters the novel through another route. Frank Kermode was a professor of English at Cambridge before he left for Columbia University and then Harvard. The title of the novel is borrowed from his volume of English criticism published in a turning point in history for many Jews, the Six Day War in 1967 – The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction – when Kermode was teaching at University College at the University of London. I was introduced to Frank Kermode as a literary critic through my first wife, Margaret, but I also remember the scandal the same year his volume of criticism came out when he resigned as editor of Encounter when it was revealed that the CIA had been funding the journal.

I last looked at an essay of his a few years ago when I was talking to my youngest son about apocalyptic themes in movies. The subject came up again – not Kermode but his thesis in his book – that fictions are the instruments we use to make sense of the world by constructing what I have called meta-narratives, ways to grasp and make sense of reality by giving it shape and form. The issue arose in the context of the environmental crisis when my two youngest sons were home for Christmas, my youngest with his focus on film and horror, apocalyptic themes and continuity of life through sacrifice of the other. Daniel, his slightly older brother, is a passionate environmentalist and the possible collapse – I believe he thinks likely since we are not doing enough to reverse the process – of the environment hangs over his life like a heavy cloud.

It is not that he is morose or does not get on with his life. He has not been immobilized at all and speaks against pipelines. But the sense of an immanent end to the world permeates his consciousness and colours his activities – he made what was to me a very impressive presentation to the hearing on the contentious pipeline in the west. He feels like Sisyphus rolling a heavy boulder up a hill, made much more perilous and far more difficult because it is actively being pushed down by the decadent cynics who mock the whole process and by the American imperial adventurism which displaces the main crisis facing the world onto adventurous campaigns against Islamist terrorism and a determination to begin a new era with the conquest of Iraq to rid it of the fictional weapons of mass destruction it was claimed the country had.

I owe those categories of framing the issue to Kermode. I owe the sense that the consciousness of the young generation has been shaped by the environmental crisis to Daniel just as the consciousness in my youth had been shaped by the nuclear arms race. There is a mood to an age that cannot be separated from the conditions in which we live and fiction is a means to make sense of it. The mood is far heavier than when the nuclear arms race hung over my generation and when the Cuban missile crisis occurred.

But this is not, I believe, why Barnes borrowed the title. There is no sense of environmentalism. The characters are members of the baby boom generation. They do not even seem to be very conscious of the nuclear arms race or the other crises stirring up Britain at the time. In that sense they seem to be living outside history.

I take that possibly to be Barnes’ point. The title is somewhat ironic. For though the ending is needed to reconstruct the story, the whole story is set by the beginning – hence my frequent references to the options available when you are in the Garden of Eden. The characters are not located between world history and their own personal lives for the story about the dialectic between history and memory is told as if world history did not exist and the thesis is about historiography rather than history itself. The main character imposes his fictions on his experience, not to make sense of the world, but to reinforce his own common sense which tells him not to engage the world. If we live in an age of kairotic time where each moment is charged with enormous significance, you would never know it from reading this novel by Barnes.

But the reference to Kermode has another point – linking Kermode’s idea of the apocalypse back to Barack Obama. As Mark Lilla (2012) wrote in his review essay of "The Great Disconnect: ‘I Am the Change’," by Charles Kesler in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, 27 September, "The conservative mind, a repository of fresh ideas just two decades ago, is now little more than a click-click slide projector holding a tray of apocalyptic images of modern life that keeps spinning around, raising the viewer’s fever with every rotation." As Lilla wrote elsewhere in the essay, "the conservative apocalypse has always been a movable one." But the conservative mind has always been informed by an apocalyptic mindset.

Unlike most critics from the left, and bracketing Kesler’s criticism, I think that Charles Kesler’s 2012 analysis of the political thought of Obama in his volume, I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism is on the right track. I have tried to document Obama’s commitment and understanding of liberalism. Further, unlike Lilla, I agree with Kesler’s assertion that Obama is intent on becoming a great transformational president and not just being president. And in another essay I will go further and argue that Obama not only has very large ambitions for the American polity, he has large ambitions concerning the two rival parties for power within that polity.

But there is a prior point. Kesler, like most conservatives, insist that Obama’s conservatism is a ruse, a public relations trick, something not to be taken seriously. Because Kesler is himself a conservative in the Leo Strauss tradition, he has not attended to Obama’s conservatism because he not only believes that liberalism has inherent contradictions, but because he mistakenly sees liberalism and social conservatism as unalterably opposed. I have added the thesis that Obama’s position has been informed by virtue ethics and a version of social conservatism. He is not just a liberal or a social democrat.

Obama may loves fiction that sets up worldviews to which he is opposed – and there are many – and we have discussed four of them, but I doubt if he appreciates fictions that purport to represent reality or construct history in terms of a grand idea as Kesler has created. That’s our job.

Kesler starts his grand narrative with George E. Hegel and put forth the old idea discarded by most contemporary Hegel scholars that Hegel viewed history as one grand sweep of human nature moving towards the absolute of perfect freedom and that the modern instrument for forwarding the idea was the state and its bureaucracy. Though Hegel certainly depicted the state – and civil society – as keys to understanding modernity, Hegel was not writing teleological history. Otherwise, why would the Owl of Minerva flap its wings at dusk? History looks backwards. Marx may have inverted Hegel in many ways to make it serve a materialist forward revolutionary thrust, but this was not Hegel’s agenda. Ironically, Kesler reads Hegel through Marxist eyes.

Secondly, the absolute is not just at the end. It is at the beginning and at every key point along the way. For the irony is that at any point we look backwards we presume we have an absolute standpoint when where we are standing will only prove to be a way station. Third, you have to understand how humans enter into a state of critical self-consciousness, a condition of living in history, but probably also of writing history. In Hegel, that begins not with a fight over power and recognition, a fight between ways of life as Cain and Abel were engaged, or between economic conservatives and liberals in our contemporary period over who deserves recognition as a defender of the highest values, as a defender of freedom, and but with the internal struggle of life and desire, with the struggle between the two trees in the Garden of Eden, between eros or desire and survival – the Tree of Life – the deadly stultifying and stagnant governing thrust of Tony’s life rooted ironically as it is in thanatos. Barnes understands this. Kesler does not. Understanding the beginning is far more crucial that even the trajectories we construct.

Kesler’s beginning starts with the American religion, its faith in the constitution. And for Kesler that constitution enshrines the ideas of John Locke not those of Hegel. According to John Locke, humans were naturally possessive individualists. However, in the state of nature, they could not exercise their passion to work on the world with their labour and convert it into artifacts that they could possess and thereby extend themselves and their identity though holding property. But that inherent will to possess combined with their inherent ingenuity allowed them to create money. Money allowed humans to accumulate. Storing bananas up was useless for they would only rot. Money abstracted from natural decay. But that led to scarcity. That led to war. That led to the social contract and men agreeing to set up government just for their collective security and to set the rules of the game for competitive possessive individualism. Hence the idea of limited government.

Except for the last deduction, it is one story of the beginning. It is one story of the role of government, not, as I suggested, a necessary logical consequence of the beginning story even for John Locke or the other members of the Scottish enlightenment. Nor does it determine the trajectory of everything going downhill to betray the constitution one the academics like Woodrow Wilson and the state builders like FDR and then Johnson had their way. It is a story that also has created an historical fraud by excising Republican presidents from this history or painting the ones that are included as traitors. In the building of the debt, the elaboration of regulations and the additions to the welfare state, Republican presidents are either blanked out like pictures in the Kremlin’s story book or painted with the same brush but with a lighter hue of red.

As was seen in Barack Obams’s inaugural and in his State of the Union Address, his set of policies are indeed ambitious, but they are based on a different foundational story and grand narrative that includes virtues ethics as well as a program of social democracy and that moves forward by articulating an original myth of caring and sharing.

I will bring the various elements together but I first want to move into foreign policy and discuss first Obama’s attitude to rights in terms of the movie, Zero Dark Thirty and then his attitude to the use of drones.

Tomorrow: Obama 15. Zero Dark Thirty – – Deciding to Kill bin Laden 19.02.13

Obama14.History.redemption.doc

Obama13: Virtue Ethics and the Redemption of White America. 17.02.13; Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending

Please find a copy attached as well. I will finish the discussion of memory in relationship to history tomorrow and how it throws light on Obama when I complete my discussion of Barnes’ novel.

Obama13: Virtue Ethics and the Redemption of White America

Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending

by

Howard Adelman

Part I Memory (Part II will be a separate blog sent on Monday.)

The Sense of an Ending is a superb novel that tells a story of how memory works but, even more, why a whole collection of memories never turned into history, and, therefore, when memories can and do turn into history as has been the case with Barack Obama. Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending came out in 2011 and with almost no real contest won the Man Booker prize by being, as one of the judges, Gaby Wood, opined "The most obvious book on the list". The book revisits and acquires insights by re-examining the main character, Anthony (Tony) Webster’s own faulty memories and sense of loss. Like The Invisible Man, a novel set against a society ridden with the schism of a deep racial divide but at base a novel about character and virtue, The Sense of an Ending is a novel about the exploration of virtue ethics but this time in a totally middle class bourgeois milieu with slights and attitudes to reflect internal middle class divisions in British society. Telling the reader, if you have not read the book, that Adrian killed himself, is not spoiling the novel since this is revealed early and is not the crux of the suspense.

The story begins with "I remember…" But no sooner does the novel begin than it reminds us of the end. For most of the recalled images are of moving water – steam rising when a hot frying pan is put into a wet sink – an adumbration of an actual scene when Tony Webster, the narrator, goes to meet his girlfriend, Veronica’s, family and Veronica’s mother, after serving Tony an extra fried egg as a gesture of her approval of him, casually "half-threw the hot frying pant into the wet sink" and water fizzed and steam rose on impact delighting the mother with the small havoc she had created. Even at the time when we read it in the first part of the novel, we have no idea of how ominous that depiction will be and how its deeper meaning is only revealed on re-flection.

Is the image of sperm circling a plughole a picture of Tony’s state, at least in his long adolescence and early university years as a young wanker and then an older retiree? Surely the other image of water, the image of a river in which the direction of flow is disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface, is a reflection of most of Tony’s life in which there is all kind of movement, but no flow, much excitation on the surface but too little going on underneath in the deep brain and in the heart.

Then there is the image of a river rushing upstream lit by six chasing torch beams. Tony did some things other than study and see Veronica when he was at Bristol University. He witnessed a singular outstanding event, even mysterious and other-worldly – a Severn Bore when the water flowed backwards up the river and "it looked and felt quietly wrong, as if some small lever of the universe had been pressed, and here, just for a few minutes, nature was reversed, and time went with it." Though Tony was amazed at seeing the phenomenon, he never connected it with himself as he moved around and around in a stagnant backwater. Who would expect him to actually experience the phenomenon in a very personal way in his retirement and the whole construction of his memory and hence of his life would have to be radically inverted!

We have the sense of the ending before the narrative has started – "bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door". The water is dead; it is still. The water is no longer evaporating upward or eddying downward into a plughole, no longer perversely flowing upstream or confusing us about the direction of its flow by a stiff wind. The water is still. There is no way of even seeing it because the door to the bathroom is locked. As Barnes writes, "The last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you witnessed." How ironic that depiction would turn out to be. Is that because Tony was not critically self-conscious, not prescient and did not know or investigate the clues that Adrian, if he could not swim in history, would enter that stagnant bathtub before it was covered in algae and began to stink, would enter that bathtub and cut his wrists. Why had he not warned Adrian of what he knew – or at least thought he knew — but had not yet articulated even to himself, that Veronica "was one woman in the entire world a man could fall in love with and still think life worth refusing"? How did what appeared first as simply an exceptional expression of wrath and rage turn into a prophetic claim and then, in another twist, turn back on itself and reveal that Tony never got it and never would.

Why did Adrian, a youth with so much promise, go into the bathtub? Each time we think we have an answer it will just as certainly be undermined. Adam left the Garden with Eve. They entered history. Adam did not refuse his orders to go. After he sinned, Tony chose to remain behind and eat of the fruit of the Tree of Life, of perpetual stagnation. Adrian decided not to after he ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil but to die rather than leave the Garden. Barack Obama followed the path set by Adam rather than either Tony`s or Adrian`s path, though he has a great deal in common with Adrian.

How can you begin a novel with a reminder of the end? How can you begin a novel with a memory of something you did not or could not possibly have remembered? Not only is memory different than history, but memory itself seems to lack any fixed sense of identity. If Heraclitus said that you could not enter the same river twice, suggesting, in opposition to Parmenides’ search for the essence or the eternal or the unchanging, that all is change, Barnes begins his novel by undercutting even that proposition. We cannot even understand change as flowing in an ever moving stream. Is change evaporation upward or a whirlpool into a black sink hole? Is change a river paradoxically flowing backwards or in any and all directions depending on each gust of wind? Directionless! Aimless! Much more confusing than simply stepping into a flowing stream – especially when the water is perfectly still, especially when the stillness could never have been witnessed, especially when the image may not even be something remembered.

The problem is not just time’s malleability but that its movements are so affected by our emotions – speeding up and slowing down and not simply going every which way. And time can go missing "until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return." But what if it does return? What if it comes back and turns the world we thought we knew upside down? The novel begins with this sense of dead time, with time missing, with time gone, with a time when we no longer will be able to remember.

We are introduced to a gaggle of four schoolboys, the original three who wore their watches with the faces on the inside of their wrists so that they could pretend that time is not passing and that they cannot live in the world of Peter Pan forever. Adrian Finn stood out if only because he refused the opportunity of being bored, of trying to escape time’s suffocating embrace. The first one we meet is the last to join the Gang of Four – Adrian Finn, a tall, shy boy. Is Barack Obama the stranger who "initially kept his eyes down and his mind to himself"? Certainly he attracted attention – not only of his fellow pupils, but the attention of the masters of the school who wanted to figure out his intelligence and sense of discipline. Was he scholarship material? Was he of use to the reputation of the school? The intellectual superior youth wise beyond his age was not treated by his teachers as an end in himself.

One of those masters was their history teacher, affable Old Joe Hunt "whose system of control depended on maintaining sufficient but not excessive boredom." Was that how all systems were maintained – by managing boredom? Is boredom the core human condition so that all activity is a flight from its downwardly spiralling swirl into blackness? Or is it, as Peter Tooley depicts in Boredom: A Lively History, a very dynamic if directionless activity to adapt to our environment? Is boredom interesting, something to be managed, controlled, dissected and differentiated? It is certainly not a feeling, not an emotion, not like fear or rage, not like love or humiliation. It could be something of which we know nothing because we are too busy escaping it even to assign Adam the job of naming it. Or boredom could be profound, informing us of the intellectual substructure or the foundational meta-narrative of our lives if only we would attend to it? In either case, it had to be managed. Or does it? Is Tony Webster’s life proof that managing boredom, if clearing up your messes and not leaving messes consists of managing boredom, is the worst route to take on life’s journey?

Anthony (Tony) Webster is introduced as his reverie was interrupted by Old Joe Hunt asking about the character of Henry VIII’s regime. Why the zeitgeist of Henry VIII? Perhaps because of our disgust with him, the man who disposed of wives on a whim and the mighty Catholic Church because he wanted to dispose of a wife! If boredom has to be managed, what better way to do it than ask about a fixed characterization, a stereotype, especially a stereotype that immediately arouses the tantalizing emotion of disgust which is itself a milquetoast kissing cousin to boredom, akin to boredom as annoyance is to anger? Perhaps an attention to tasteless whitebread instead of an olive and spice baked baguette might provide some insight into the still water of that bathtub when nothing happens. What if we look at Henry VIII through the eyes of Shakespeare, one of Obama’s favourite authors? What if we look for stability and constancy through the lens of a period of serial philandering summed up in the life of a polygamous royal butcher, a period when wives were considered as both matters of inconvenience and the key to the continuity of power and control?

If Tony is the middle class witness to Arian Finn’s short life, does another friend, the cynical Colin, play the roll of jester to Henry VIII, the Will Somers who survived all that chaos and went on to keep jocularity alive in a time of violent conflict, civil war, chaos and suffering through the unstable regimes of Edward VI and Mary I until Elizabeth I was crowned and a long and relatively peaceful reign ensued? If Adrian intrigues the masters by his intellect, was Colin useful as a comical distraction lest we become fixated on the horrors of the age? What better way to manage boredom than offering a joke or two. Certainly far better focusing on a cautious know-nothing comical survival than being mesmerized by the intellectually clever machinations and inventiveness of true ignorance!

Enough of reverie! Enough of idle speculation! Enough of escape from the vicious grasp of boredom! Let’s get to the real thing. Tony Webster, the voice of the novel, the non-present viewer of the dead water in the bathtub, introduces us to the intellectual depth of Adrian Finn before we meet Colin and Alex, the other two boys in the clique. Phil Dixon, like Tony Judt from Kings College in Cambridge, was their English teacher who, with his interest in T. S. Eliot and birth, death and copulation, enters the unfolding novel. Why was T.S. Eliot, the monarchist anti-Semite, one of Obama’s favourite writers? Surely Obama did not look forward to counting out his life in coffee spoons and wearing his trousers rolled? Surely Barnes also did not since he started a novel with three out of four boys who wore their watches rolled and inverted on their wrists.

Phil Dixon, the English teacher, asks Adrian Finn what a poem was about. What is Barnes’ novel about? Adrian Finn answers without a pause, "Eros and Thanatos". Like Adrian Finn, Obama was a gangly very intelligent kid but from a home where the mother not the father had abandoned the family. With the solid support of his mother, Obama never had to confront eros with thanatos a la Freud and contemplate (and commit) suicide as Adrian did, but everyday he had to walk a tightrope to resume his commitment to life and history. The issue was not personal choice a la Camus and choosing your own destiny, but coming to grips with your own past repeatedly and living to fulfill the destiny chosen for him as any hero of old. "The clarity of his life" reflected in his commitments and service. As for John Kennedy and for Plato, courage is a vital virtue that must be cultivated and developed through the self-examined life.

Did Adrian Finn have the "courage of his convictions", the intellectual agility to wrestle with sex and death? Or was that the source of failure rather than the illusion that he exercised absolute freedom by alone determining whether he would live or die. For that’s where all the conflict and chaos, the escape from boredom starts, with the conflict between desire and life, with the conflict between two trees planted in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Goodness and Evil and the Tree of Life. Adrian Finn could ask the question: Why did Adam and Eve not eat of the Tree of Life first? Then they would not have had to become self-conscious of the death penalty they faced.

But all Tony Webster could say to Phil Dixon his English teacher was that the poem was about a barn owl. He could not even add that the Owl of Minerva only spreads its wings with the falling of the dusk, that we can only understand our histories through a rear view mirror. Adrian Finn, who refused to wear his watch rolled, went into history as if he could read history forward rather than backward. He began where time began, with sex and death, not with looking over his shoulder and examining the past so that he became like the Milkman in The Song of Solomon frozen into inactivity and boredom. Adrian’s new found three friends were occasionally serious when they were not taking a piss. Adrian was essentially serious though he took the odd break to have a piss.

As Adrian Finn became friends with Tony, Alex and Colin he always remained the outlier, Charles de batz-Castlemore D’Artagnan to the Three Musketeers, by joining in the fencing club and sports, preferring gymnastics and the high jump while Tony and Alex made fun of conformity and Colin adopted a satirist’s disdain. While his three friends remained tone-deaf to the rhythms and the music of the time, Adrian brought a clarinet to school so he could train to be a Pied Piper. Adrian kept his own counsel while his three best friends cultivated their cleansing scepticism. Tony denounced the political system, Colin denounced the family and Alex questioned any reference to reality as a benchmark at all. But Adrian believed in all three, in family, in the political system and in reality. As does Barack Obama!

Adrian may or may not have been on the way to becoming a liberal social democrat but he was always a social conservative who believed in family, who believed in politics and the efficaciousness of the democratic process with all its faults, and much more profoundly believed that there was a reality and that society was not just a projection of his own beliefs. For Adrian Finn was a social conservative who did not accept relativism. He was not like the individualists of both right and left who so dominated political discourse, who believed that the central issue of life is material existence. Adrian wanted to believe in and do what family, what society, what reality required rather than that which was determined by something or someone else. Though the Tree of Life might be his or everyone’s major preoccupation, the key to understanding and to living in history, as Henry VIII knew, was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and eating thereof.

Barack Obama pledged in his State of the Union Address to strengthen the Middle Class in spite of his own recognition that a great portion of that middle class, and certainly of those who supported him, who belonged to the not-so-genteel social Darwinism of the bourgeoisie who, in contradiction to their own overt beliefs, offered great sacrifices to ensure their children would be better than they were. They were futurists. They needed to be won over on a promise of hope even though their beliefs told them that life had no meaning and you couldn’t even tell which way the river was flowing let alone step into it twice.

Barack Obama, Adrian Finn and I were all raised in single parent households, Adrian and I at a time and in a social milieu when single family households were unseemly, when it was a matter of humiliation, when my mother never told her fellow workers at Simpsons that she was separated and then divorced. But Adrian, like Obama, "said he loved his mother and respected his father". Unlike his three friends, Adrian did not accept that youth was a time when you were kept in a holding pen while you shut your eyes to the reality that when released from your youthful prison you would only enter a larger one. Adrian was born free, mature beyond his age. He believed, believed in the family, believed in politics and the democratic process and believed that principles should guide action, but he also believed what Camus said that the greatest decision and freedom of all is choosing to live or die. What counted was not the outcome but that you made the choice.

When the boys debated whether the individual was responsible for what happened in history or whether the laws and forces were the determinant or even whether, as Colin quipped in morbid disbelief, it was caprice, Adrian opined that the real question was why we asked the question about responsibility? "Isn’t the whole business of ascribing responsibility a kind of cop-out? We want to blame an individual so that everyone else is exculpated. Or we blame a historical process as a way of exonerating individuals. Or it’s all anarchic chaos, with the same consequence." We ask the question about responsibility to escape responsibility. The issue then is not history itself but the mind of the historiographer who writes it.

Then the boys learned that Robson who was their age in Sixth Science had committed suicide. He purportedly had a girlfriend and got her pregnant. How did the boys react to Robson having a girlfriend, making out with her and even conceiving a child? They never evinced any sentiment of empathy for his family, for the abandoned girl and especially for their fellow student. Instead, they were jealous for they had not even suffered the pangs of humiliation by a girl scorning a tentative feint that had even the appearance of a move on a member of the opposite sex. They had learned all about romance and sex, all about the suffering and sacrifice, the pain and the humiliation. But they had yet to experience it for themselves.

When Tony did have the experience, it was everything he anticipated it would be for his first serious relationship was with Veronica. From her he received contempt and from her father and brother, condescension, and he would feel deep humiliation until the only way he could cope was to walk away himself. But Tony walked away only when he and Veronica actually crossed the line of unfulfilled passion, of unrequited love. Tony recognized that he did not want to be the one who would just do. But, in the end, as we shall see, he never did get it.

Tomorrow: Obama14: Virtue Ethics and the Redemption of White America

[Tags Obama, Barnes, The Sense of
an Ending, social conservatism, memory]

Obama13.Virtue Ethics.Redemptiom.America18.02.13.3.doc

Humiliation.Judt (2010) The Memory Chalet

Humiliation

Tony Judt (2010) The Memory Chalet, London: Penguin Books.

Discussed by

Howard Adelman

Tony Judt was one of the eminent public intellectuals and historians in the latter quarter of the twentieth century, but he reached the pinnacle of his achievements in an outpouring of writings in the first decade of this century. In 2010 he died from a neurodegerative disorder, amytrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. While losing his ability to write, then move, then talk, and when he was “condemned to long hours of silent immobility”, heroically and with steadfast determination and imaginative innovation, he wrote The Memory Chalet. In that decade he had published Ill Fares the Land (2010), a polemic on behalf of social democracy, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (2008) and Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005), perhaps his best and most important book after his famous book on French intellectuals in WWII. In 2012, Thinking the Twentieth Century was published posthumously.

I have previously written of the differences between Memory and History so it is compelling to discuss a famous historian who discusses memory and the “nostalgic recollection of happier days” using mnemonic devises even to store what he has recalled since he could no longer write or record what he thought without assistance. The mimetic, for Judt, entailed mutuality and symmetry rather than mimicry. Recollection was construction. For Judt not only recovered old memories, but had to remember and organize them for easier recovery and composition. So he created a “Memory palace as a storehouse of infinitely reorganized and regrouped recollections.”

Though he claimed to interweave the private and the public, there is actually very little of the truly private in the book; Judt was clearly still a reticent Englishman. We see his intellectual passion, his keen sense of observation and his lively and combative intellect at work, but we only get a glimpse of his gut desires and no insight into his heart. He claimed to interweave the reasoned and the intuited, the recalled and the felt; but, again, there is far more reason and far less of sensibility, far more recollection and a surprisingly small amount of feelings, except about his condition as he lay in a cockroach position immobilized on his back “trussed, myopic, and motionless like a modern-day mummy alone in my corporeal prison”. In response to this state of suspended despair, The Memory Chalet became his escape. But it was also his challenge and the new foe he was obliged to engage in heroic battle.

Judt never once discussed having the option of Dying with Dignity at the time of his choosing. This was raised as a question in Michael’s talk at Massey College, and he answered that he had asked himself the same question. So it obviously was a question not only for me but for very many others. Michael answered that he did not know, but he speculated that Judt may have pulled the plug. Knowing Judt’s personality, the actual suddenness of his death, and the fact that he had just finished delivering the final version of his manuscript to his publisher, this was a real possibility. The Memory Chalet was not simply an escape, nut may have also been a farewell message. In it, Judt provided us with a window into his life. It is an act of sharing and a reaching out for community.

If memory is the effort of reasoning to reach back and comprehend personal experience, if it is a phenomenology of oneself, it is the very opposite of history, for historiography is the effort to record and understand collective events and actions as time sweeps forward. It is not Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu nor Tony Judt’s recollection of his personal journey through time and space. Though running on different train tracks that often criss-cross one another, what memory and history both have in common is not only reaching back into the past, but an effort to understand both change and differences. Both memory and history recognize the role of chance without reducing either one’s personal life or the collective one to caprice. Judt certainly recognized that if he had not by luck or a fluke been born in England and then been admitted into King’s College in Cambridge, everything might have been different. Falling into the career he did as an historian was the most precarious experience of his life. Living the final two years of his life as he did showed the degree to which a human can take command of time and even battle caprice.

In reflecting on a life lived, in fact, through reflection on another’s life and recollection of it, we gain a more acute understanding of our own. Further, by comparing the two experiences, you also obtain a more acute understanding of the other’s, particularly when the key categories and concerns of each life overlap – a concern with education, with the zeitgeist, with globalization, modernity and national character, and with lies and the difference between appearance and reality. But the recognition of fundamental differences is also important. And the unique focus of Judt’s memoir for me is its scattered expressions concerning contempt and humiliation, a point which Michaeldid not take up yesterday evening but which intrigued me.

But first the more mundane differences and similarities! Tony Judt was 10 years younger than myself; he was born after WWII in 1948 while I was born just before it. He also had an academic career but one far more illustrious than my own. He was and remained to the very end a wonderful writer. He went to an English direct grant independent self-governing school subsidized by the local authorities in London open to any boy who did well at the examinations for eleven-year olds. Though Emanuel did not have the snob appeal of Eton, Winchester or Westminster, it nevertheless offered an excellent education. Unlike the high school that I went to in Toronto, Harbord Collegiate, where the Jewish population exceeded 95%, in Emanuel there were only 10 Jews amongst the 1000 students. There Tony Judt encountered endemic anti-Semitism which I only experienced when I crossed the turf of enemy gentile gangs in the exogenous world outside my parochial Jewish world.

We also shared another similarity in the language we both chose to study – German. We both had superb German teachers. Joe, who taught Judt, had a sardonic sense of the absurd, and though he praised first-rate work, he scathingly characterized those who fell below his high standards of perfection as “absolute rubbish” and the “scum of the earth”. He reminded me of one of my own excellent teacher of algebra who would bark at fumblers and dissemblers and tell them to grow drive a truck. We both had the delight of experiencing politically incorrect but brilliant teachers.

But our experiences in learning a language were very different. While Judt in just two years of intensive German study achieved a high level of linguistic competence to enable him to read quite sophisticated books in German, I struggled and struggled with the study of another language. Though I was not as exposed to Yiddish as he was, and that probably was an assist for him, it was clear that he was very adept at languages. I am surprised upon reflection that my gentle and very supportive German teacher did not imitate my algebra teacher’s advice to others and tell me to go drive a truck. For in my select form of high achievers where everyone in the class received over 90 marks on the first German exam, I received a 62 in stark contrast to the series of perfect or near-perfect marks I received in science and my mathematical subjects throughout high school. And those subjects I barely had to study outside class. I studied German 3 hours a day — every moment I could spare from my paper routes and other means of earning money. I finally became proficient enough to read detective stories in German and earn a 92, but the sweat and tears! Judt got the second to top grade with ease. Our recollections both left us with the belief that, “being well taught is the only thing worth remembering from school”.

Judt was admitted to King’s College, Cambridge and it made his life. He went to university in the dying days of in loco parentis whereas I was an undergraduate a decade earlier when enforcement was more deliberate and effective but when we too found many means to get around the strictures. He eventually became a fellow and was even briefly associate dean. I briefly taught at Trinity College at the University of Toronto and swore after that experience that I would never teach at a university again; the students I happened to get were just not serious. Several years later I returned to university because of the opportunity to teach mature students at Atkinson College at York University and ended up staying there thirty-seven years before retiring and taking up research professorships at Princeton and at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. I also had a brief stint as an associate dean very near the beginning of my academic career.

Though living as a resident student in the Oxbridge system was radically different than being a commuting student and then living outside the colleges in student cooperative housing, we both attended university when “liberalism and tolerance, indifference to external opinion, a prideful sense of distinction accompanying progressive political allegiances” were among the manageable contradictions that pervaded both Cambridge and the University of Toronto. We were both on the social democratic left. We also went to university well before political correctness, identity and other forms of gender and identity politics permeated the curriculum and before hypersensitivity to wounded sentiments became a dominant norm concerning conduct. Judt begrudged what has happened to the university and blamed his generation for leaving that residue as its legacy. In a very early book, The Holiversity, I was, surprising to myself, reasonably prophetic in anticipating both the emergence of the social service university into pre-eminence and its successor that is currently on the rise, the supermarket consumer dominated version of higher education.

Unlike Judt, I took no personal responsibility for that outcome but attributed it to the contradictions within the university and the forces of history. Judt emerged as much more of an elitist than I and he totally disparaged the effort to give everyone a chance when hypocritically the talented were privileged anyway. Judt and I both, nevertheless, bemoaned the emergence of post-modernism and we both had “little tolerance for self-expression as a substitute for clarity”. Effort was no substitute for achievement. Judt’s teachers at King’s College at Oxford expunged his nascent Marxism and imbued him with the conviction that history as a discipline was “dependent in the first instance upon facts, not theory”. They taught empiricism “by the simple device of listening very intently to everything I said, taking it with extraordinary seriousness on its own terms, and then picking it gently and firmly apart in a way that I could both accept and respect.” The teachers at St. Anthony’s College at Oxford did the same for my son and cured him of his nascent Gramscian propensities and turned him into a committed empiricist. I was never cured of my affair with abstract dialectical forces, but also never subscribed to the simplistic and reductionist Marxist version.

Though I am ten years older than Judt, he comes across as much more of an old fogey when dealing with contemporary culture. He writes in The Memory Chalet that, “The wealth of resources we apply to entertainment serves only to shield us from the poverty of the product; likewise in politics, where ceaseless chatter and grandiloquent rhetoric mask a yawning emptiness.” I love contemporary entertainment and especially movies. I also think that politics has not been reduced to meaningless talk even though politics is also awash with ideologues, now on the right rather than the left. Though I am very critical of some politicians (and ever more critical of some members of the chattering class) I celebrate and admire the way many others practice the art of politics.

There are other curious and coincidental though perhaps not very revealing similarities. My father, like his, in keeping with their generation, was obsessed with motor cars – the relatively expensive and ostentatious Citroën in his father Joe’s case. My father loved Chevrolets, though in 1948, the year Judt was born, my father slipped up and bought an Austin. That purchase demonstrated why the British automobile industry would virtually vanish in the next few years. However, my generation was perhaps not obsessed but was certainly preoccupied with cars. I stood out in my deliberate indifference. Perhaps it was because, although both our fathers were most at home in their cars that symbolized new found freedom and prosperity and stood for “individualism, liberty, privacy, separation, and selfishness in their most socially dysfunctional forms”, his father took the family on road trips and only left his unhappy marriage later. My father used his car to escape his family and his obligations.

We both used the public transportation system in our respective cities before we reached our teens to explore its various dimensions and pathways. Though both Judt and I found walking pleasurable and enjoyed our bikes, we both love trains, especially Swiss trains. As Judt wrote, “To travel in Switzerland is to understand the ways in which efficiency and tradition can seamlessly blend to social advantage.” Trains can be heavenly bliss. Though I loved taking the commuter train back and forth to Princeton every week for a year, Judt was much more critical of American and the changes in the British train service over the last two decades. “In later years, as Britain’s rail system fell into decline, train travel lost some of its appeal. The privatization of the companies, the commercial exploitation of the stations, and the diminished commitment of the staff all contributed to my disenchantment—and the experience of travel by train in the US was hardly calculated to restore one’s memories or enthusiasms.”

Though both of us despise ideologues of the left or right and are both versions of social democrats, where we differ is very basic. Judt had “lots of homes and I don’t consider my heart to be attached very firmly to any of them.” As he wrote, “I suppose I’ve always been homeless.” In contrast, I was born and educated in Toronto and lived in one home virtually for 42 years – for most of my academic career. And when we downsized recently, we only moved next door. Judt was a baby-boomer; I preceded the baby-boomer generation and enjoyed even more fully what Judt described as the benefits of growing up “in an age of prosperity, comfort and security” and knowing that I could do whatever I wanted in life.

Secondly, we experienced our mid life crises at slightly different ages travelling along different trajectories. I was a hard working kid living with two brothers and supported by a single mother. By the time we were fifteen, my older brother and I had saved enough money to buy my mother a house. Judt, at the same age was busy being indoctrinated with what I presume were his father’s Zionist beliefs rooted in Labour Zionism and Judt in 1963, 1965 and 1967 went to live in Israel and work on an Israeli kibbutz. He was at the time an ideologically committed conformist true believer and an articulate proselytizer. I was at that time a rebel against my orthodox Jewish beginnings, a universalist and an anti-Zionist, though a quiet rather than a noisy one. He then believed in what was widely known as muscular Judaism, in “health, exercise, productivity, collective purpose, self-sufficiency and proud separatism.” I was a cosmopolitan who had broken away from what I regarded as my parochial upbringing. “Is Jewish Survival Necessary?”, my first publication in 1960 in Reflections (24-31), focused on a number of assimilated “Jewish” intellectuals – Simone Weil and Henri Bergson among them.

We are both born again intellectuals. Judt’s immersion in East-Central Europe, specifically Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, brought him back to life. Judt wrote about the double near death experience of Jews – the Holocaust and the feared elimination through assimilation. The events leading up to the Six Day War took me through a third near death experience. Judt does not write about how the Six Day War affected him, but when it arrived he had already become disabused with Zionism as well as Israel. I at the time in the period leading up to the war noticed the huge chasm between my fears that Israel would be wiped off the map and my supposed indifference to the fate of any expression of Jewish particularism, whether in the form of a state or through the Jewish religion.

Though I was not exalted by Israel’s enormous victory in 1967 and participated in none of the euphoric celebrations, I was very relieved and quietly determined to resolve the contradictions between my professed intellectual positions and my deep emotional concern with the fate of Israel. For the first time, in 1973 I finally took my whole family there for three weeks. I was reborn as a Zionist and thence celebrated the recovery of Jewish self-determination. I am extremely proud that two of my grandchildren grew up in Israel and served with distinction in the Israeli armed forces in stark contrast to my strident pacifism as an undergraduate.

Judt was correct when he wrote that, “Many American [and Canadian] Jews are sadly ignorant of their religion, culture, traditional languages, or history. But they do know about Auschwitz.” Except I actually even knew very little about the Shoah. Judt mastered the Czech language and I studied a great deal about not only Zionism and the Middle East but even subsequently revived an interest in Judaism that had been systematically expunged from my soul when I attended Jewish school six days a week. So it is surprising that in spite of these very basic differences, we are both entranced by identity politics in its traditional form focused on the nation state and, in particular, the nation in that state. It seemed paradoxical to me that Judt as a professed cosmopolitan would be mesmerized by traditional identity politics focused on the nation rather than gender or ethnicity and, further, that he would so vividly and succinctly depict key characteristics of each nation and very near come to reifying those characteristics.

In The Memory Chalet, Judt characterizes seven national cultures; American, English, French, German, Czech, Swiss and Jewish, though he clearly revoked his earlier belief that Jews had a “national” culture and deserved to have the responsibility of self-determination to have their own state. (See his infamous 2003 controversial essay on a one state solution in the New York Review of Books.)

For Judt, “America herself is a mistress, rebuffing and seducing by turns”. Judt loved living in New York because, like many Americans themselves, he bought into the myth that New York was on the edge and not really part of America. He observed, loved and depicted the inter-cultural multicultural street life of New York city. Judt was appalled and repelled by the contemporary ostentatious patriotism of contemporary America, and its bellicosity and nostalgic triumphalism, its creation of community through consumerism and its hyperventilated moralism. He was appalled as more and more Americans became hyphenated in their identities and envisioned further decline, not only for America, but for European states as well when, “Intolerant demagogues will demand ‘tests’ – of knowledge, of language, of attitude – to determine whether desperate newcomers are deserving of British or Dutch of French ‘identity’. They are already doing so. In this brave new century we shall miss the tolerant, the marginals, the edge people. My people.”

In his first but relatively late contact with the United Sates, he was overwhelmed by America’s obsession with size, with cleanliness and, especially in the heartland, for him its sole reliance on church and religion for creating community. Judt obviously knew nothing about the role of sport in America, especially American football. He was also amazed by the huge libraries found in the land grant colleges of the midwest with their multi-million book collections. One gets the impression that his discovery as a reticent Englishman startled him even more, that “Americans are shamelessly confessional”. He implied that the style emerged from the power of the Christian religion. I myself believe it has more to do with American mobility, the open frontier and American desire to be efficient even in getting acquainted with another. More generally, it also has to do with more current attempts to end the apartheid between thought and feelings, between the mind and the heart and between the expressed and the repressed. But certainly Judt is right that, America is “an old-new land engaged in perennial self-discovery”.

Contrast the abundance of America with the austere Britain of Clement Atlee in which he grew up in an attitude of grin and bear it after WWII. Austerity was also personal. His mother was a Jewish Cockney who lived in East London at the edge of both the Jewish-English world in Bethnal Green and the core of Dickensian London. She was so assimilated that she had almost no knowledge of Jewish cuisine and cooked like most English mothers with the absence of any flavour in food whatsoever even though his grandmother was a magician in preparing chicken, beef, fish and vegetables. And Judt declared, “We are what we ate. And I am very English.” Does that explain his rejection of Judaism even though he declared “whenever anyone asks me whether or not I am Jewish, I unhesitatingly respond in the affirmative and would be ashamed to do otherwise”. We will have to return at the end to Judt’s sense of shame.

Judt was so English (and so culturally conservative) that he rejected the next generation’s “ersatz classlessness” as epitomized by the bar that the subsequent cohort of students to his own had installed at Cambridge. He criticized the next generation because they were “most readily mobilized against injustice committed many thousands of miles away.” “The difference between us (the two generations), elective cultural affinities aside, lay in our future prospects, not our contemporary condition.” Judt was an open elitist and meritocrat, loved King’s College, celebrated its record of embracing change and disruption by accepting with bemused nostalgia the governance through archaic rules while breaking them in practice. Though he said he understood why subsequent generations of graduates went into commerce and private banking and the more remunerative reaches of the law rather than public service and the unprofitable end of the liberal professions, he really bemoaned their choice.

Judt’s harshest words were saved for the French of which he knew a great deal. My own research and publications on the head scarf issue confirmed Judt’s allegations (2011 “Contrasting Commissions on Interculturalism: The Hijȃb and the Workings of Interculturalism in Quebec and France,” Journal of Intercultural Studies 32:3, June 2011, 245-259), but they were also informed as a result of reading Judt, though I question his interpretation that “in French films: indecision rather than plot drives the action.” As Judt described French intellectuals, “The radical disjunction between the uninteresting evidence of their own eyes and ears and the incontrovertible conclusions to be derived from first principles introduced me to a cardinal axiom of French intellectual life.” In my study of the introduction of the ban on head scarves in French public schools, the commission included several famous French philosophers and sociologists. They recommended the ban even though they had never undertaken any empirical research on the subject It took an American sociologist to reveal that, out of over a million Muslim girls in the French educational system, only fewer than a thousand wore the head scarf and only two, daughters of a Jewish man married to a Muslim woman, wore the headscarf for the reason the commission recommended a ban, that is, because they were wearing the scarf to make a political statement.

Judt tells the story of being encountered in the very prestigious École Normale Supérieure by another student who asked how he did on the strenuous tests for admissions. Having heard that Judt had been admitted as an Englishman without writing the exams, the student remarked, “C’est impossible.” As Judt summed it up, “The radical disjunction between the uninteresting evidence of their own eyes and ears and the incontrovertible conclusions to be derived from first principles introduced me to a cardinal axiom of French intellectual life.” Thus France had made Paris marginal to the international conversation. (Cf. Howard Adelman (2011) “Religion, Culture and the State,” in Howard Adelman and Pierre Anctil (eds.) Reasonable Accommodation and Minority Cultures: Reflections on the Bouchard-Taylor Report. Toronto: University of Toronto Press,100-116)

Germans still had a large residue of anti-Semitism. “If French politics were intensely – even absurdly – theoretical and dry,” German politics was about sex. Though a nice throwaway line, I suspected that Judt’s view of Germanic repressed sexuality was as much a product of inherited British prejudices as of any direct experience. Judt clearly preferred “the distinctively Czech qualities of doubt, cultural insecurity, and sceptical self-mockery” and Zeslaw Milosz’s 1953 The Captive Mind was and remains “by far the most insightful and enduring account of the attraction of intellectuals to Stalinism and, more generally, of the appeal of authority and authoritarianism to the intelligentsia.” For Judt, it was much more incisive than Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon that had such a great impact on the formation of my own views. Though Judt loved the Czechs, he admired the Swiss even though they were obsessed with cleanliness and with an uncluttered regularity for everything. For a historian interested in change, the irony was that, for Judt, in Switzerland, and Mürren in particular, “Nothing happens: it is the happiest place in the world.” It is no surprise that at the end of the book and contemplating his immanent death, he envisioned traveling up and up a train to the highest reaches of Switzerland “for ever and ever”.

Judt’s most complex and contentious as well as most extensive remarks were on Israel and Judaism, surprising for someone who claimed to have left all of that behind over forty years earlier. When he served in the Israeli army on the Golan Heights, he “encountered young, prejudiced, urban Jews.” In the kibbutz before he was even twenty he had discovered “how limited the kibbutz and its members really were; collective self-government or egalitarian distribution of consumer durables does not make you either more sophisticated or more tolerant of others but contributes to an extraordinary smugness of self-regard and reinforces the worst kind of solipsism and insularity.” One cannot tell how the oppressiveness of the experience had been exaggerated over the years so that the kibbutz came to be a doppelganger for his state at the time of his writing. “Israel felt like a prison in those days, and the kibbutz like an overcrowded cell.” Whatever the experience, he came to identify Israel wit the dogmatism of his youthful Zionist indoctrination which he grew to not only actively dislike but to hate.

His criticism extended to the Jewish community in America, Israel’s strongest supporter. Judt queried, “Jews in America are more successful, integrated, respected, and influential than at any place or time in the history of the community. Why then is Jewish identity in the US so obsessively attached to the recollection – and anticipation – of its own disappearance?” And if Emil Fackenheim suggested a 614th commandment be recognized that a Jew is commanded not to give Hitler a posthumous victory by disappearing as a nation or through assimilation, Judt asked, “Are we really Jews for no better reason than that Hitler sought to exterminate our grandparents?” Judt declared that, Holocaust memory is a “vicious abuse of memory used to justify uncompromising Israelphobia and to service lachrymose self-regard.” Judt considered the question and the assertion taken together as capable themselves of dealing a knock out blow, but, of course, the answer is that this is far from the whole story. For there are assuredly more than two compelling reasons! And Judt should b ashamed, though he clearly is not, for failing to acknowledge this fact. This is especially so because Judt believed that, “Judaism for me is a sensibility of collective self-questioning and uncomfortable self-questioning.”

Lies and delusions may arise from omission and distortion as well as deliberately telling a falsehood. And Judt, though a truth-teller, also “had the talents of a silver-tongued orator”. Judt loved not only the many languages he had mastered, but talking, for “talking was the point of adult existence” and he believed it was not merely evidence of intelligence, but intelligence itself, a conclusion he himself belied in writing the book. But he also admitted that, “words may deceive” and be mischievous and untrustworthy. Further, articulacy was a way of conveying proximity while maintaining distance so that language could be used to fend off intimacy, a characteristic he attributed to Barack Obama. Nevertheless, despite these weaknesses he was a champion and master of the use of the English language but not glib talk, which he hated, as well as the kind of theory and methodology that favoured obscurantism where language is used to mystify rather than inform. He always remained contemptuous of garbled language.

When the misuse of language becomes a part of deliberate state policy to exercise and retain power, then we have an Orwellian world. So why get caught up in a a wholesale conveyer of lies if you did not live in a totalitarian society? That is the lesson men who dissected what it was to live in such a society taught. That is what Zeslaw Milosz in The Captive Mind revealed more generally, “the appeal of authority and authoritarianism to the intelligentsia.” How could they say one thing and do another?

When I led the Combined University Campaign Against Nuclear Arms as a student at the University of Toronto, how could one member of the executive who was also Communist Party member campaign against nuclear arms and then defend the USSR resuming testing? How could he live with the contradiction of saying one thing and believing another? I had to resign as Chair and demand his resignation. The committed deluded idealist, the fellow traveler and the cynical time server who adhered to this secular faith participated in an ideological self-delusion and a refusal to imagine or consider alternatives. If communists were the foremost self-deluded political group as we began our careers, the worshippers of the free market, in minimum or no regulation, in reduced government, have joined in voluntary servitude to the new right rather than left orthodoxy.

However, one theme is repeatedly mentioned but not highlighted and is perhaps the most revealing part of the book. Judt describes his father “as a frustrated man: trapped in an unhappy marriage and doing work which bored and perhaps even humiliated him.” Humiliation is that theme. His mother too suffered from shame. “Mother was discreet to the point of embarrassment about her Jewishness versus the overtly foreign and Yiddish quality of most of the rest of his extended family.” When his father drove their Citroën to visit relatives in a poor area of London, Tony Judt “wanted to disappear down the nearest manhole because of “the envious attention his new car was attracting”. When he lived on the kibbutz in Israel, he recognized that its functioning was based on the “successful deployment of physical intimidation and moral humiliation.”

When he became a fellow at King’s and had some authority, the student cohort who now came, not from the aristocracy and private schools, but from excellent state schools, were discovered by one of the “bedders” (women form town who served as surrogate mothers to the young boys and girls for King’s had become co-ed by that time), she witnessed a group of then cavorting on college grounds nude. Three factors explained her reaction: the presence of girls; when she came upon them, they made no effort to dissimulate or even cover up; worst of all, they laughed “at her discomfort. In short, they had broken the rules of engagement and she felt humiliated.”

As Judt explained the situation, previous cohorts of students brought up in privilege recognized her station and respected her class and its values. They knew better than to treat a servant as an equal sharing their values. Those gentlemen “would have apologized, expressed their regret in the form of a gift and offered an affectionate, remorseful embrace”. Treating the bedder as an equal had “as much as anything hurt her feelings”. She had lost a claim on their forbearance and respect: her role had been reduced to mere employment rather than surrogate mother. The new rich bourgeois class shared none of those sensibilities but shared the same ignorant principle amongst themselves: “all human relations are best reduced to rational calculations of self-interest”. This was the reduced and impoverished capitalist vision: “the ideal of monadic productive units maximizing private advantage and indifferent to community or convention”. They have no “understanding of social intercourse, the unwritten rules that sustain it, and the a priori interpersonal ethics on which it rests.” They spouted and said that they revered Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations probably not having read it but certainly not having read his volume, A Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Why was Tony Judt so mesmerized by the Lordship/Bondsman relation? Why did he interpret it in terms of mindblindness and self-deluded voluntary or involuntary subjection to tyrannical authority? And why was humiliation and shame the most evident by-product of this difference in class? Since his tutor showed him respect in his criticism, he learned. If contempt was forthcoming, the student was ashamed. So respect and recognition are the proper antidotes to class and economic conditions. Why was humiliation so important to Judt and a window through which he experienced the world?

Tony Judt only hints at all the humiliations he suffered on growing up. When he was an established academic in London and went in to launch a complaint about mistreatment of a Czech acquaintance by the authorities and learned that he was totally ignorant of the circumstances and problematics of the case, he was offended and embarrassed “to be thought both unimportant and uniformed”. And, of course, his humiliation at needing help all the time to do almost everything must have been the pinnacle of humiliation for him at the end of his life. But then why was humiliation so central to Judt’s historical experience? At this time I can offer only the briefest possible answer.

In 2010, Maggie Smith published a book, Asylum, migration and community which probes the experience refugees fell when they exit a country and then the double humiliation they experience in their country of asylum. Their loss of status is more embarrassing than anything else they experience, especially if they come from middle class roots. Humiliation is almost always about failure of recognition.

Tony Judt was a famous scholar but before that government bureaucrat he appeared to be an ignorant dolt. Tony’s father was an informed and articulate reader, thinker and believer but he worked in a hairdressing parlour. Tony’s mother was a died-in-the-wool English woman ashamed of her Jewishness and the European accents of her social circle. After all, they were “greenies”. Tony was embarrassed and humiliated at the kibbutz because they saw him as jus a grunt when he really was a very successful student who had achieved entry into one of the most prestigious academic institutions in Britain but the kibbutzniks had no appreciation of that accomplishment. Judt just generalized on that ignorance and branded them provincial for not recognizing his achievements. And the “bedder” at Cambridge was embarrassed and humiliated, not because the students did not recognize the class to which she belonged and rules of discourse long established in dealing with class relations, but because they did not see her as an independent Other with sensibilities and responsibilities. The previous privileged classes at least had the decency to give her the semblance of respect and recognition.

The humiliator generally is indifferent or has contempt for the position or the person of the other. The one humiliated is not only embarrassed but can develop a repressed anger and urge to retaliate for that non-recognition, an attitude exemplified by Cain when God recognized Abel and not him. The humiliatee wants the injustice corrected and can become a demon in the pursuit of his or her version of social justice. At the extreme, humiliation, revenge and the desire for social justice can be found to be a pervasive theme in the actions of mass killers at schools and at places of work. (Cf. Charles B. Strozier, David M. Terman, James Jones and Katherine Boyd, The Fundamental Mindset: Psychological Perspectives on Religion, Violence, and History)

Now in none of the cases cited by Judt did the possibility of violence and revenge ever appear to come up. No one became an evangelist for justice. The failures of recognition were relatively mild. Further, when Tony Judt experiences the opposite of non-recognition when his King’s College tutor ignored his youthful theoretical pontification and, by respecting his opinions and examining him closely, allowed him to recognize his own need to undertake empirical work, Judt reciprocated with respect and appreciation.

Since Ruth Benedict in the year of Tony Judt’s birth characterized Japan as a shame culture and America as a guilt culture, and since then others have characterized Jewish culture as a guilt culture par excellence, and still others have built on and revised and improved on that distinction so that one broad consensus emerged. Shame cultures grant low cultural value to the individual and shame can then be used as an effective tool of social guidance. Guilt cultures grant low cultural value to the community and guilt must be instilled within each individual to ensure a degree of social conformity to social norms. Why then was shame so preeminent in Judt’s psyche?

No culture relies solely on shame or guilt. Cultures use an admixture of both, though the high degree of one versus the other allows one to characterize a culture as predominantly one rather than the other. But a culture can have high value placed on both individualism and community. This is true of the Jewish culture and contributes to its “schizophrenic” frenzy. It is both a shame and a guilt culture. Tony Judt was driven by a search for community in Zionism, in the kibbutz, in Cambridge University college life and in his intellectual devotion to social justice. In his behaviour and in his intellectual pursuits and writings, he was the consummate individual with an original voice. But in the value given to social order, a shared community was a prerequisite to enjoyment of public life. Guilt is expressed greatest if an individual like Tony Judt fails to grant adequate credit, recognition and acknowledgement to an Other. But shame becomes the main descriptor when social norms rather than individual achievements fail to be recognized. Tony Judt had very little sense of guilt but was enormously sensitive to humiliation.

The problem was not that the bureaucrat failed to recognize him as an esteemed intellectual but that Tony Judt had let down his intellectual community in revealing his ignorance and had let down his acquaintance in failing to achieve social justice. Tony experienced a life crisis and took up the study of Czech, an initiative that gave him a lead in uncovering the underbelly of the communist system that was the shame culture par excellence, a culture that undercut any individual’s capacities to be allowed to feel guilty or grant recognition to another individual. Tony Judt’s father was aware of the gap between his capacities and his economic role. His guilt was that he had not been personally able to surmount those limitations and realize his potential. His shame was that he let down the expectations off him by the community. In this case, the guilt and shame were reinforcing.

Tony Judt’s mother was an edger, the group to which Tony belonged. Her inability to cook well necessarily made her a subject of shame among the community of Jewish women at that time. At the same time, she was ashamed to associate with the inferior accented Greenies that formed her social circle. As the object of shame and as a subject feeling shame for the other, it was no surprise that she does not seem to have provided either Tony or his father with a happy home life.

So Tony Judt had to find another people to which he could belong. His desperate effort in his Zionist days failed miserably. His intellectual efforts freed him from any guilt, but the aggregate of intellectual eccentrics at King’s College could not provide the membership in the social community he craved and that he had experienced to some degree in the arguments around the kitchen table when he was a youngster. So he went to New York and joined the edge people. Israel as a divine icon had been a god that failed. Judaism had left him bereft but he was too proud to bury that identity. So he became the scourge of Zionism and of American Jews determined to turn the tables and humiliate both as he also expunged any guilt and became the brilliant writer, historian and critic so widely admired. As an equal opportunity provider he had time to distribute the product of his criticism to America, the English, the French and others. Only the Czechs get off and that is because they were the vehicle for his rebirth and rejuvenation. The despiser of identity politics becomes its exemplar when applied to nations

[tags judt, history, memory, national identity, humiliation]