A new novel of mine, The Ash Tree, has been published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it recounts the lives of an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family as it builds a new life in California.
There are three other novels of mine, One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished.. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a rewriting of Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable - is my political novella (with eight stories) about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
From a review of "Acts" from Createspace, before it was updated and rewritten, on Amazon.com:
"At times the reader races ahead to find out the fate of the cast of characters and the fate of nations. At others the reader is stopped mid-page to consider the paradoxes of the nuclear world and the world of realpolitik. This is an important, timely book that deserves a wide audience."
For a fuller description of them, look for the relevant blog posts below or click on one of the Amazon.com links. KINDLE editions of these novels are also available.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Third excerpt from Acts of Terror and Contrition - a political novel about Israel

I wanted to mention how moved I am by the Israeli novelist David Grossman's vivid, sad, and honest new novel To the End of the Land.

Here is the the third excerpt from my political novel about Israel and unrecorded acts of terror and contrition during the first Iraq War. An earlier version of "The Old City" scene toward the end of this excerpt appeared in the journal Ararat, but the novel has yet to be published (if you have any thoughts about how to go about achieving that, please do contact me via Comments):

The little girl sat on her grandfather’s lap, and Arie sat in an easy chair next to the couch.

“I’m coming to get you, Gily,” Rami said as he put his creased hands up to his forehead, like horns, and wiggled them at the seven year old who laughed wildly on his lap. Elena stood watching her daughter and father-in-law; in her hands she held glasses of Slivovitz and ice for the two men.

“When you are ninety-five, Grandpa,” Gily said, “will you go poof?” She threw her hands up in a wide circle.

Rami laughed, repeating her wide arc with his free hand. “Who knows? That’s a long time from now.” Rami’s wiry frame, seated on the couch, seemed undaunted by his years. His face was tanned and wrinkled, its expression off-hand yet serious, smiling except for the eyes which were piercing beneath wire-rimmed glasses. His hair had turned from black to white in the last ten years.

After Elena gave the men their drinks and took her daughter with her into the kitchen, the father and son raised their glasses. “To peace,” Rami said in a ritual gesture.

“Did you solve this afternoon’s problem?” Rami asked.

“No. It only gets worse.”

“‘Everything we’ve built was built on sand.’ Before I go poof, I hope I won’t have to feel that again.”

“Knowing you, you won’t,” Arie said. “I remember the Singer: ‘Dust thou art, to dust returneth,’ et cetera.”

“I only knew that sort of despair in the forties. In the camp. You feel guilty at being a man.”

Gily carried a dish of flat bread to the dining table at the end of the room, and Elena followed her with a bowl of yogurt.

“Just five minutes,” she said and then overheard her husband speaking.

“The camp still haunts us, after almost half a century,” he said. Elena put down the yogurt and took her daughter from the room.

“To me,” Rami said, “the camp is a lens to see beneath the surface of things. Not only Auschwitz and the other concentration camps. There are the labor camps, the detention camps around the globe, our Palestinian camps. Even the kibbutzim.”

“You put that with the others!”

“Each reminds you of the need to endure. To face death and yet to survive. It’s the Jewish legacy. To live in order to explore the kibbutz of death.”

Rami took a long sip of the plum brandy. He eyed his son and nodded. “In Auschwitz, each train load of new victims was a revelation. As they moved closer to the selections, they were stripped of all signs of ordinary life. The Eternal Jew stood naked before us. When I saw that, it seemed to me that only facts retained value. The bits of food, the births, the weather. For months, that’s how we survived; we noted facts. Germans and Germany we mentioned as little as possible.”

“You survived,” Arie said automatically, “and months later I was born.”

“You were a sign to your mother, that we had come through.”

Arie sat silently in his chair. Amid the gassings, Rami and Magda had joined, with a lust to survive, even before their liberation from Auschwitz—and he had been born, a jettison of futurity, compounded of ash and lust, gas and the flame of hope.

“Dinner is ready,” Elena said. She and Gily brought in the rest of the meal. Father and son rose, and Rami gestured for Arie to go first. Then the white haired survivor seemed to dance after his son to the dinner table.


Her simple song flowed through twists of tune, turns, which poured out as if revolving weightlessly in space: “Baruch ata Adonai.” Elena stood as she sang the prayer before High Holiday candles, and then she sat down to serve the meal. There was lamb roasted with garlic and pepper; there were the potatoes, carrots and dried apricots, a dish from Europe which Arie’s mother used to prepare—and then two salads, one of lettuce and the other of finely chopped vegetables.

“I’ll be glad to see Moshe home,” she said. She passed the plates of the food to her father-in-law, her husband, and her daughter.

“Yes, Friday,” Arie said. “I wish I could go to the airport with you.”

“You must. He’s counting on it.”

“A situation is developing. I know I won’t be able to make it.” His wife was silent.

“I can go with you, Elena,” Rami said. “Why not?”

“Moshe will be filled with his trip. Six weeks, my God.” Her eyes began to hint of tears, and she turned to Arie. “He’ll want to tell you about it.”

“I’m going to watch the planes,” Gily said as she ate. “I’m going to see Moshe land.”

“Yes,” Arie said, “you and Mama and Grandpa are going Friday afternoon to see Moshe land. He will tell you all about Los Angeles and Uncle Morris and at supper he will tell me too.” Arie turned to Elena. “It’s a problem. I won’t even be attending Yom Kippur services.”

“Do you regret that?” she said loudly. Then she asked: “Why do we celebrate, Arie?”

“What! We do because we do! In our own way.”

“But we are agnostics. We don’t believe, yet we observe without believing.”

“Yes, without believing.”

“And this doesn’t bother you? It should.”

“It’s the way things are.”

“No, pardon me, we should be bothered.”

“Pardon me, but no. It is just assumed. We are Israelis, we are Jews, and so we accept these customs. It is our identity. No fuss, no fanfare, just like breathing.”

“We don’t have to believe as the orthodox do,” the old man said, “in order to be Israelis. It’s only human.” He smiled at his son’s wife.

“Yes,” Elena’s voice rose into a clear soprano. “I know we should celebrate even when we don’t believe; we must. But I’m sure we should also be bothered by it.”

“Don’t fight,” Gily began to chant, the little girl’s voice bright and relentless. “Don’t fight. Don’t fight.”

“We’re not fighting,” Arie cried out, his hands slapping down on the table. His father stared sharply at him.

“How dare you shout?” Elena said. Her voice was high and pure.

“How dare I! Israel is about to become a battlefield again. The world is about to break apart at the seams. And you tell me I must be bothered by observing the holy days. How dare I!”

“You’re a tyrant,” Elena hissed in a whisper. “Ask your father! You blindly shout and oppress us. You don’t care a bit about your family. God help Moshe and Gily. You don’t care about any human being except yourself. A human being, my God. What is an Arab to you but dirt? You’re a fascist!”

Rami should not have been there. He pitched his voice rudely at them, like a buffoon: “Not bad for an American girl! What do you say about the Arabs, Arie? Are you a fascist or not?”

Elena’s face blanched.

“To hell with the Arabs,” Arie shouted, but then his voice grew quiet: “I did not mean to shout. I’ll tell you why I’m upset, but later, not here in front of Gily. Gilia, Gilia, how are you?” He glanced at his father; then with eyes half shut, he turned to his wife. “Elena, we must survive, we must.”

“Yes,” she said quietly, yet her voice floated away from them. “We must, Arie. But why—if we could know why. Why do we suffer, Arie? If we could only know.” She reached over the table to soothe Gily, who was staring terrified from her chair.


Arie lay on the bed, a crimson bathrobe belted around him. The new apartment’s wall-stucco was already cracking at its prefabricated edges. Through the window, Arie saw a shower of stars luminous above the cypress on the hillcrest. Elena was finishing the dinner dishes, and Gily had been put to bed. Before Rami had left, he had returned again to his memories.

“I’ve told you about the Jewish capos. Each of them had a motto. I will survive. Meaning I will never be selected. I remember especially the overseer in our hut, an impossible person. Well-mannered, religious, quiet, and slovenly, unpredictable, treacherous, murderous.” His father had talked on, and Arie did not tell Rami more about the crisis at Intelligence.

Now, alone in the bedroom of his apartment, Arie was drawn down into the flood of his day, its chaos and mystery. He reached out to each intricacy of the problem and tried to thrust past it. Stretching now full length on the bed, he held his body perfectly still.

Elena opened the door. As she changed into her nightgown, Arie described the day’s events to her, the murder of Ezra in Paris, the report from Eli in London, the call to the Prime Minister, and finally the suspicion that America was hiding the details of Iraq’s threat to Israel, that the region was headed for the brink and was losing control over the movement toward war, and that the global powers would allow Israel to be the battlefield. Elena opened the bedcovers, stretched under the sheet, and both of them lapsed into silence. Arie did not voice his dread that amid the chaos of deceptions, nuclear bombs would obliterate the land of Israel. He lifted his knees and legs to get under the covers and stretched by her, his head against her red hair. He pressed for shelter against the silent woman and kissed her gently. Quietly she murmured her opposition, as she reached her hands into his curly hair.

As they moved into the postures of love, he smiled and called her his name for her. “Sheba,” he called to her. They had walked beneath the canopy of trees in the Judean Hills and knelt together by a cool spring which must have flowed there for thousands of years since before the time when David sang, and they touched their hands cool and wet from the spring water gently to each other’s limbs and joined their bodies beneath the grove of gnarled and ancient trees. Finally memory gave way to the present moment.

Elena held Arie sleeping in her arms. But sleep was withheld from her, and her thin face glowed in the light from the stars.

Before him, Arie saw the cinder-covered plain, where he lay. Nearly naked men and women walked past him, crisscrossing the empty earth. Their bodies and those scattered about the earth glowed white. Next to him he recognized Ezra, bent and bleeding. Arie’s heart went out to him, and as he lifted him in his arms, Ezra crumpled red and black into a wisp of carbon. The wandering bodies crowded around him; he saw their heads were shaved and their bodies were the bodies of animals. A light powder of cinders began to envelop them all like fog. An incessant sound hissed in his ears like the sound of a factory whistle or an approaching rocket.

Arie jerked away from Elena. The telephone was ringing, and he reached to the bedside table to answer the sanitized line.

“Mr. Schneider.” It was the night operations officer.

“Yes.” Arie’s mouth was dry.

“There is a priority message, in code, I’ve processed from Dan Reisman in Washington.”

“Read it.”

“Now.”

“Yes. The line is safe. Read it to me.”

“‘New intelligence from Pentagon contact—Revised American war plans—Baghdad now strategic target, possibility of nuclear arms use in region—Barton killed 9 AM Washington by unknown assailant—Await instructions.’“

“No one,” Arie stood naked by the bed, “no one is to see or hear of this message until further instructions from me. I’ll drive down now.”

Arie dropped the receiver onto the phone, and he began to dress. Elena sat up on the bed, as he dressed groggily, with automatic movements. Arie leaned over and kissed her forehead.

“Be careful, Arie,” she said. “Will there be war?”

He coughed and mumbled in a hollow voice, “I don’t know.” When he drove out of the parking lot and down the hill toward Jerusalem, it was half past eleven, and the night sky was pale with a spattering of stars.

* * *

It was a village, only vast and breathtaking; Haim drove through the Latin Quarter in the Parisian twilight and swung his small Fiat through the late afternoon traffic, searching for an opening in the flow of cars heading down Boulevard Saint-Michel toward the Seine. He made the decision to wheel and intrude, and pedestrians popped across the pavement as drivers accelerated. His eyes swept over the pedestrians he passed, the kiosks, the movie marquee near the corner of Saint-Michel and Saint-Germain, the crowded cafés. As much a carnival as it seemed, this village for the bourgeoisie and its fringe was a deception.

There was a parking space on the quay just to the left of the corner fountain, and Haim shot into it. Clouds had begun to threaten rain over-head, and up the Seine loomed the gothic flank of Note Dame. Scores of pedestrians streamed with him over the plaza, stepping around motorcycles and young people who lolled beneath the jutting figures spouting water from the fountain. The costs of this illusory village spoke from the faces he saw, from the corners of the mouths, the eyes: such were the costs of the Parisian past, its imperialism and violence. The blood of each generation had seeped into the streets of the student quarter, the oldest in Paris, so that the wind-blown, river odor seemed to carry the scent of blood. Haim crossed Saint Mutual and walked into the labyrinth of St. Severin streets, walkways with drains like sewers down the middle. These streets without cars housed small restaurants run by Greeks, Palestinians, and the Tunisian Jews.

He cut down an alley to a tiny Tunisian restaurant next to a cinema showing a Palestinian film on the latest unrest. Once inside by the stove, he saw the stacks of red sausages, the half-cooked hamburgers, the sandwiches of tuna, boiled potato, hot peppers, and olives. The odor of charred lamb and semolina for couscous, of cumin and garlic, was in the air. A man waved him to the back. Haim sat down at the furthest table by the short, old, Tunisian Jew, then unbuttoned his coat, and passed his hand over his short-cropped hair. The Tunisian clapped his hands at a waiter who brought flat bread, olives, mashed eggplant with garlic, and a bottle of anise-flavored Arak. He insisted that Haim eat and drink, and the Israeli sipped from a glass of the liquor and tasted the Middle Eastern food. After a minute, the host began to murmur that there was something he should tell his guest.

“What have you seen?” Haim said with calm, careful politeness.

“It’s very bad...the Iraqis,” his voice drifted into silence.

“Yes, I know.”

“Now, Nissim and Ezra...”

“Yes.” Such was the numbing cost of their work. “Please, tell me what you know.”

“Your man, Jaeger, is in the Quarter,” he let out his news. “At noon, he was seen near the Etoile. Now he is holed up in the rue Cujas.”

It had begun to rain lightly when Haim sprinted up Rue Saint-Jacques, past the walls of the old college. He turned down rue Cujas, and he saw the hotel which the Tunisian had specified. He slipped into a small bookstore and glanced at the hotel across the street. In its narrow glassed-in parlor, a thin, unshaven, blond man sat surrounded by what Haim took to be a half-dozen black-haired Palestinians watching a soccer game on television. After a few minutes, Jaeger threw on a jacket, took an umbrella, and drifted outside.

At the corner of Boulevard Saint-Michel, Haim was almost upon him. The American—furling his umbrella—dodged down the street, an athlete jogging in the rain. In the darkening twilight, Haim flew after him, plunging through the pedestrians, racing past the Place de la Sorbonne with its dripping bust of Descartes overseeing the chaos of tourists and students escaping the rain. As he ran down toward the Seine, the Arak pulsed through Haim, insulating him against the pain in his legs and belly and the tight hammering of the holster against his shoulder. What mattered now were not computer codes or Iraqi missiles tipped with nuclear bombs, though he would find out what he could. What mattered was that Ezra had been murdered, that Ezra’s wife and son in Tel Aviv were mourning at this moment, that another Jew’s blood had been spilled, that his friend, always calm when Haim was full of fury, had been murdered by pigs, that Jaeger knew.

Soaked by rain, Haim was almost upon him again as now they fled across a bridge over the Seine. Jaeger slipped through doors into the dark of Notre Dame Cathedral. Haim sprang inside just in time to see him swerve into the darkness of an empty confessional, and he leapt toward the stall, barely grabbing Jaeger in the gloom. They tripped onto the stone floor by the gaping, gothic portal. Both of them were breathless and soaked, Jaeger spread eagled beneath. With a gun in his hand, Haim breathed out: “Questions, only a few questions about the Arc of Triumph.” They heard the noise of a priest approaching.

“Get up. Quickly.” Haim snapped. Together scrambling up, suddenly Jaeger jerked his whole weight into Haim, his knee into his groin, dodging into the dark and rain. Haim heard the echo of the man’s curse in his flat, mid-western accent. He stumbled after him into the autumn storm which earlier had swept over London, inundating Paris on its way east.

Part Two

Thursday, September 27, 1990

He left his office overlooking Jerusalem, took the elevator four floors down to the exit, and walked past the guards into the parking lot. It was after midnight, and the city lights were extinguished, giving way to a star-lit black. At midnight, he had called his father to meet. Rami was known for late hours, and the habit had grown with age. He stayed up each night until two and three.

As Arie left his office, he had called Simon’s apartment. On the eighth ring, Simon answered. His breathing was labored and barely controlled.

“Simon?”

“Arie.”

An image crossed the Intelligence Chief’s mind, of a man and a woman locked together. For an instant, he imagined their nakedness, the smell of their lovemaking, the liquid surging in her, his semen, their sweat.

“Simon, there are developments at headquarters. I need you here.”

There was mumbling in the background, and then the aide replied.

“I’ll leave immediately.”

“There will be instructions for you.”

As Arie hung up, he was certain that Rachel was there: his loyal aide coupling with this brilliant and intense policy analyst.

Arie’s gray sports car drove now toward the city to a street bordering Nachlat Shiva. Rami lived alone on the edge of the district, in a street of two story residences with walls of stone, wrought iron balconies, and vine-covered patios. Arie drove up to the walkway, and his father was standing alone at the corner. None of the orthodox was there to observe or harass them late at night. The Intelligence Chief got out of the car.

“Don’t bother,” Rami said as his son walked to the passenger door. The father swung the gray door open as if it were a bank vault or a cache of weapons. Arie stood next to him on the sidewalk, and as his father settled himself in the bucket seat the son smiled with deference at the old man and shut the car door with a click.

“Take me for a drive, Arie, around the walls of the City. There is a place I like near Zion Gate.” The son had wanted to talk in his father’s apartment, yet he kept mute. “This café is quiet and open late; it’s run by Armenians.” They drove out onto the thoroughfare heading down Shivtei Israel, past the entrance to medieval, orthodox Mea She’Arim boarded up and deserted. Father and son did not talk as the Old City wall crowded to the left. The silence between them was broken only by snatches of a song, which Rami whispered, a march in Yiddish. They drove south past Jaffa Gate toward the Mount of Zion with the tomb of David on it and the prison of Jesus nearby; inside the car, the old diplomat long removed from Europe sang softly in Yiddish:

“Kumen vet nokh undzer oyzgebenkte sho

Svet a poyk ton undzer trot: Mir zaynen do.”

The storefronts, the City wall, the clay-domed roofs of houses were blackened in the moonless night, and the City seemed barricaded. Arie parked his car near Zion Gate, and they emerged into the night. The southern wall loomed by them as they strolled toward the gate and the Old City’s Armenian quarter. The passing groups of armed Israeli soldiers—all of them assigned to police signs of Palestinian uprising—halted them only the first time to ask for identification. There were few people out.

“Jerusalem is good at claming up, father; for thousands of years, we’ve been building barricades. We’re good at shutting ourselves in.”

“Mir zaynen do,” Rami softly repeated the song’s cadence. “All week that has been running through my head. You know the Partizaner song? ‘Beneath our footsteps the earth will resound: We are here!”

They walked together down a darkened street, past tiers of homes, and Arie held his father’s arm firmly, as they came upon the café, still open among the thick walls of the Armenian district. The quarter’s closed windows and walls were lit only by the gleams of light filtering through slits in a few shutters and doors. From the café, several yards in front of them there came the noise of laughter and talk and men singing out orders for lahmajoun and beer. Here in Ararat Street there was a pungence to the narrow, walled walkway. The clay, the wood, and the latticework of iron bars absorbed the spice and scent of its inhabitants.

Rami opened the green door of the café, and father and son walked into a kitchen where several Armenian men sat impassive now on wooden chairs. A few yards away were steps down into a shallow hole in the cement floor, and at the end of this recessed area, a massive open oven was flaming. The chef stuck long poles into the arched and fiery opening. Inside the walls of the furnace cooked eggplant, chicken, and dozens of small lamb pizzas—the lahmajoun lay flat on long wooden pallets the chef pushed and then pulled from the fire.

Arie and Rami made their way through the kitchen to the side room with tables and late-night diners; as they walked, Rami resumed their conversation.

“We are here inside these walls. Like these Armenians. And our voices, our souls resound. That is Israel: thick walls and singing souls.” Rami was smiling. His eyes looked briefly askance at his son.

“Mr. Schneider,” the bald Armenian—who was fluent in Hebrew and willing to admit it—asked the white haired Jew, “a sweet perhaps?”

“No, Abrahim, the cognac is perfect. From Armenia?”

“Only for my best customers, Mr. Schneider.”

“Please, call me Rami. You know we have the same name. Call me Rami.” The warmth emanated from his father which was the mark of the man, compelling an acknowledgment even from those who otherwise would dismiss him.

They sat isolated in the back of the dining room. In the front were men playing chess and tavloo and cards, and they ate from small plates of the food from the kitchen. Two lone foreign tourists—a man and a woman—sat by the entrance, and they had a late night snack, cured and peppery basterma, rice filled grape leaves, and glasses of red wine. In back, Rami raised his glass to his son, about to sip the smoky liquid: “Mir zaynen do.” Arie could not smile, and Rami looked full at his son.

“What’s wrong?”

“I have to tell you,” Arie’s voice was cold with rage, “there is increasing evidence that the Iraqis have put nuclear payloads on their missiles. And the Americans are withholding intelligence of the threat from us. This afternoon, the CIA even cut our communications link for over an hour.”

“Why would they do this?” Rami asked, having seen a lifetime of hope and nightmare realized beyond imagining.

“Because they want war, father. Everyone is hungry for war—the Iraqis, the Americans, let alone the Europeans, the Russians, the Iranians. I don’t even mention the Palestinians. And they will all risk a nuclear exchange because they want war so badly. It is chaos. The American troops are headed for Saudi Arabia, and they carry anti-radiation gear. I’m convinced they will permit a so-called limited nuclear war in the region, if it seems ‘necessary.’ This means that Tel Aviv as well as Damascus, Riad, Baghdad—all will be incinerated.”

“It may be,” Rami’s words were tentative; they trembled like an old man’s.

“Yes, it may be,” Arie said in a furious voice. “It may finally be world war. Now, of all times,” he said bitterly, “to celebrate the end of the Cold War, there will be a nuclear war. I must act, father. I can prevent it. I have the intelligence, I have the power. There are steps I can take, and I am taking them.”

Rami lifted his glass to his lips and swallowed the remaining half of his brandy in one gulp, tilting his head back like a Russian. “Let’s take a walk,” he said to his son, but Arie did not move. He sat sipping brandy by his father in the smoky, spice-scented room. With distant fury he said: “Who would bring children into such a world?” Arie looked up, and he saw his father’s face staring blankly across the table.



“Be careful,” Rami said as they walked into David Street next to the Armenian Quarter and near the café they had left. The son reached to hold his father’s arm, yet it seemed as if Rami were leading him.

“You know what your mother used to say about you? Almost your exact words: ‘How could we bring a child into this world?’”

“She suffered. A great deal.” In the camp, she had been strapped on the conveyor belt of death. Arie’s sorrow was beyond explanation for him.

“There is a lot we don’t speak of,” Rami said. They were walking past the noisy doorways of cafés and a few occasional pedestrians, some arrayed in Arab gown and headdress, some in shirtsleeves. Then, father and son turned left onto a street of churches, walking toward the Holy Sepulcher, and Rami continued: “Your mother always suffered twice. First she would imagine the possibilities for suffering. Not that there was anything false; she did not fake feelings which were not her own. No, she suffered because she imagined her suffering before the fact. Afterwards, she suffered in reality.”

“She was self-destructive.”

“I have no contempt for suffering, whatever the form. After the camps, Magda had a harmed soul; I felt compassion for her.” They were walking toward the twin-domed Church of the Holy Sepulcher, luminous in the night. “I believe you suffer twice, like your mother. I know it hurts.” He paused as his son maintained his hold on him. “No one can live as they should when they bear a double measure of such pain. We become enraged, and this can only obscure our vision. It can disfigure our humanity.” They passed the Hill of Golgotha buried within the stone shrine and turned up the Via Dolorosa, retracing backwards the Stations of the Cross. “But you’re a strong man; I’ve seen it time and again, how much control you have. Now you must be especially alert and strong.”

“I do the best I can,” Arie said, but his voice was bitter. “Is it enough? I couldn’t stop the Palestinian rocket from killing mother.”

“What could you do?” Rami cried out. Then he said softly: “You remember when she rose in her bed and stared, as if she saw a cataclysm out over the Mediterranean, and then she fell back. Is it awful to say, Arie, my heart broke then not for her death but in gratitude because I knew she would no longer suffer so?”

They walked to the corner of Al Wad road. The peasant-looking Special Operations Chief and his white-haired father silently headed for the Temple Mount, and at the Al Wad intersection they walked by a handful of young Arabs loitering at the door of a café. The black-haired men gestured at the two anonymous Jews and spoke in bursts of Arabic.

To be continued.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Notes on the Modern Period - 11 - Eliot and Death

In my earlier posts (on Yeats, on Keats and on Mallarmé, etc.), one theme has involved these poets’ engagement with death. The theme is, of course, a frequent one in poetry; for example, a powerful Renaissance confrontation with death is Donne’s Holy Sonnet 10 with its last line: “Death, thou shalt die.” For nineteenth and early twentieth century poets, the reach toward transcendent possibility often involves the paradoxical death of the ordinary self. For Yeats, the power of the image is to transmute the passion and suffering of lived life into art – of the “fall to earth,” and that fall involves an awareness of how death and life are intertwined; for example in “Byzantium,” the “gold mosaic” images from the walls of Hagia Sophia are hailed as “death-in-life and life-in-death. / …Those images that yet / Fresh images beget, / That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.” Even in this poem set far from Ireland, there is an affirmation of art’s turbulent connection to life, which makes sense perhaps especially in the context of a newly postcolonial culture. In contrast, the recognition of death’s role for Eliot’s imagination is another matter altogether. The difference is suggested by the opening of Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” which is an epigram from Petronius reporting, in the Greek, what the Cumaean Sibyl said: ‘I want to die.’ Eliot’s work gives form not only to the experience of death as a part of life, but also to the yearning for death.

The Sibyl’s desire to die is one part of the many layers of allusion which characterize Eliot’s poem (here we are given the Sibyl’s original Greek, which is embedded within Petronius’ Latin narrative). Eliot’s strategy – constant allusions, often in their original languages – is not simply to impede immediate comprehension; nor is the poet merely challenging the reader to join Eliot as an elitist adept in the arcana of “the mind of Europe” and beyond (by the end of “The Wasteland” we are reading the original Sanskrit words of a prayer calling for humans to “give, sympathize, and control”). Such defensive harboring of past culture is not quite the point, for Eliot does provide footnotes to elucidate his poem’s allusions, and his strategy promotes a sort of delayed comprehension, so that one experiences the shock of confusion and then the decoding clarification. Yet the elucidation give little comfort, for the sensation produced is of an echoing emptiness. It is as if a desperate force is grasping rather hopelessly for pieces of the literary past, and the reader is made to participate with the poet in struggling with the fragmentation of that past, the defeat of inherited culture in the face of the emptiness of the urban present.

The sense of multiple voices haunting at the edge of death is implicit in the initial title Eliot gave the manuscript of the poem: “He do the police in different voices,” with the deadening vulgarity of its knowing self-mockery. Part I of “The Wasteland” is made up of “different voices” or interrelated sections, all of them focused in one way or another on symptoms of spiritual death; the title itself of this part is “The Burial of the Dead,” after the funeral service in the English Book of Common Prayer. The first voice is a bitter and literate voice which takes back Chaucer’s opening pastoral image of regeneration (“When that April with its sweet showers…”): in Eliot’s vision, “April is the cruelest month…” The second series of ten lines offers a trivial, gossipy voice recounting seasons spent in aristocratic leisure. Then, abruptly, the biblical prosody of a third series of lines preaches against the stony deadness and desiccation of modern life. Stoniness here is a symptom of spiritual self-blindness and is rather the opposite of Yeats’ metaphor for the “terrible beauty” of imaginative transformation. Eliot's poetry is never more eloquent than when it inhabits a zone of deadness, whether a lifeless desert or a ring of hell or purgatory. The next fifteen lines return us to the “social” aristocratic voice of the second sequence, but now the speaker is complaining of an abortive sexual liaison (and her complaints are framed by allusions to Wagner’s “Tristan.” Then the penultimate sequence introduces a “famous clairvoyante” with her bad cold, who evokes the mythic Tarot images of death and rebirth, but debased by their modern purveyor. In the final sequence of “The Burial of the Dead,” a new voice emerges, not biblical, but bitterly apocalyptic in evoking the “Unreal City” as a hellish vision (accompanied by an allusion to Dante witnessing the limbo of souls at the entrance of Inferno): here death pervades the “crowd [which] flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.” The section ends with an allusion to Baudelaire, a quotation of the last line of “To the Reader,” which bitterly indicts the ultimate symptom of the bourgeois reader’s spiritual torpor: “It’s Boredom! Tears have glued its eyes together. / You know it well, my Reader. This obscene / beast chain-smokes yawning for the guillotine – / you – hypocrite Reader – my double – my brother!” The poem’s subsequent Parts II through V imagine just this “yawning” for death.

In Part II, images of sex without love encompass both past and present, the “withered stumps of time;” this “Game of Chess” first takes back the mythic adoration of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra (of her, and also her own of Antony), then it dissects upper-class ennui (“O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag”), and finally it deflates proletarian squalor and puts Ophelia’s “Good night, sweet ladies” into the demeaning mouth of the bartender at closing time. Part III is “The Fire Sermon,” in which disgust provides an ineffective refuge from the burning flames which are shown to constitute modern life; here the ugly vision of the Thames becomes a rescinding, through disgusted allusions, of the promise of Spenser’s “river” vision of love and Shakespeare’s “island” vision in “The Tempest;” finally the voice of Tiresias, dead and ‘foresuffering,’ takes over the vision of the loveless city, and the lines of the poem break down into short fragments which enact the poem’s statement: “I can connect / Nothing with nothing.” Part IV, the short “Death by Water,” presents the false promise of regenerative water as the instrument of drowning and despair. Finally, in Part V, “What the Thunder Said,” there is a counterpoint between images of death (“Falling towers / Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London / Unreal”) and a tentative vision of regeneration and refuge in a sort of noble asceticism (there are the Sanskrit words of Hindu prayer as well as allusions to the myth of the Fisher King). However, the healing vision of water gives little relief. The fourth line from the end of the poem proclaims that these images are the “fragments I have shored against my ruins.” The next line is a quotation from Kyd’s Renaissance Revenge Tragedy, an upwelling of mad bloodshed and death. The penultimate line contains the aforementioned Hindu prayer, and the final line invokes three times the Sanskrit word for “the peace which passes understanding.”

Eliot’s reader hears “The Wasteland’s” piteous call for refuge, for our honoring of those fragments, both their content and their brilliant form, so influential and infectious for modern ears. Simultaneously, the reader is acutely aware of the equally piteous voice of a yearning for death, for an end to the torment of modern time. We are left to experience the tension between the two, between the call for refuge and the voice of death, and we are left wondering whether the image of that “peace which passes understanding” can endure, or is ‘achieved,’ in the poem, or whether it too is murdered by the relentless deadness, by both the desiccation and the drowning. Such is the paradox of Eliot’s poem. With great power and ambition, it enacts the dilemma of modernity, its yearning to affirm (even to affirm an ascetic or curtailed spirituality) in conflict with its awareness of the pervasiveness of death – of the self, of decadent and alienated society, of the ten million ‘Great War’ dead, and of entire structures of knowledge and community.

I hope next to post some commentary on one of Eliot's "Four Quartets" and particularly one in which he imagines a meeting with the ghost of Yeats.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Second excerpt from Acts of Terror and Contrition: A Nuclear Fable - a novella about Israel

Please see the subsequent excerpts from my short novel, including a fifth excerpt posted in January 2013 - the whole novella is published by Amazon.com and is available from all online bookstores. Here I want to offer the second excerpt from my novella about Israel, tracing certain unrecorded acts of terror and contrition during the first Iraq War:

Rami lowered the receiver into its cradle and sat still in his apartment near the Old City. From the side table he lifted a small pot of thick black oriental coffee to pour himself a cup. When his son first entered intelligence service, Arie had been all vigor and confidence, having already risen to the top of the Interior Ministry. And in his first years at Mossad, his son had helped plan the attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor. Rami recalled the day he and the world learned of its success. “Everyone, including the Arabs, is glad we took out the reactor,” Arie had said.

“It’s ironic,” Rami said, “Iraq is the site of Eden: Sumeria. You know the Hebrews emigrated from there. So too did the Palestinians.”

Now Rami lifted a cup of the sweet, black liquid and sipped. He looked out the barred windows of his apartment to the narrow, sunny passageway outside. His son disagreed with him about Israel, for Arie was prepared to give up on the open, imperfect process of politics. His son believed in the purity of hierarchy, in the small cell of chosen individuals, each of whom would protect and defend the integrity of the state. Born in the months after Auschwitz, Arie was an issue of the camp itself, and the white haired survivor felt deeply implicated. What would happen to his son, to Israel itself, this stony, star-bound land? No language existed to tell their need. Words belied and cheapened. “Yet I must try to tell him once more,” he said aloud, and his voice reverberated in the dusty motes of light filtering through the old apartment.

* * *

A chill rain swept over the Thames, over the fake Gothic Parliament building, the palaces of culture squatting by the river, and the City with its stony depositories of capital.

Eli walked through the crowd in Bloomsbury streets fighting the rain and the concussion of the wind. A monstrous city. Its tide of surreal billboards and junk architecture was drowning the past, corroding the flesh from imperial London, and grinding the bones of the old city to silt. Breathless, he turned past the pillars guarding the entrance to the British Museum, gave up his coat, rubber shoes, and umbrella near the door, and walked through the arching halls.

He passed the glassed-in manuscripts and glimpsed his own reflection, his image wavering as if in an aquarium window: the tailored jacket, the tie, his own lean face, the eyes glinting like pearls. Arie had said he must visit the British Museum, so Eli took him at his word and used the Museum frequently as a contact point. Now he meandered back to the left and moved slowly toward the door to the Elgin Marbles.

Warm and breathing the conditioned air of the large hall he entered, he gazed at the Parthenon friezes suspended before him, their struggling bodies carved into eloquent, sensual postures. He held his thin frame still and looked at the marble men on horseback gathering as if for a war several millennia distant from the present turmoil. The Greek sculptures were unlike the remnants of Jewish culture, for the Jews had left behind them mostly words, not things. Yet in these stone images, he glimpsed the ancient, struggling men of his own Jerusalem.

An American accent mumbled at his back. He turned to see Deborah, about thirty, plump, her red hair chest high to him.

They began walking about the friezes. “This is lunch for me, so let’s get on with it. Something is strange at the Embassy. There’s an alert, but no one admits it. No one talks; it’s pretty schizophrenic. Since this morning. And they’ve changed codes. Not the usual weekly adjustment. A complete overhaul. They won’t let us near the main frame. Only highest security clearance allowed.” Eli glanced up at the carved bodies surrounding them and then at the taut, white skin of the woman’s face.

“Get a sample of the new code. Even something shredded.” The thin man reached out to hold her fleshy arm. “We can use anything at all, Debbie.”

The woman gave him a quick grimace. “I’ll try,” she said; “I’ll be in touch.” Eli was left alone, standing before the graceful, ruthless stones.

Outside the British Museum he plunged again into the wind-driven mist, and crossed through Russell Square nearby. Branches whipped back and forth above his head, their leaves sweeping down to the grass and stone paths. The London fall gripped Eli’s limbs. What was the use of the sensuous and the beautiful, of bodies and clothes, food and music and drink in such a ruined city?

* * *

Arie played idly with the new information Rachel had brought: reports of unusual movements of Iraqi Scuds, its liquid-fuel ballistic missiles, and of accelerated fueling patterns for the mobile weapons darting across the dessert; also, there were indications of increased alert status among troops throughout the region—and in Europe and America as well. A week ago, General Dugan, the US Air Force Chief, had been right about America’s contingent war plans: they were no longer contingent. Of course, Dugan had been fired for his honesty.

“Saddam will not allow the embargo to proceed without retaliation,” Rachel had said. “It’s clear there will be war. Something will explode soon, and when it does, Scud missiles will rain down upon us, and they will carry chemical, biological, and – it is possible – nuclear payloads.” She believed that Saddam had secretly bought atomic bombs from Pakistan, and that was the reason the audacity of his invasion of Kuwait and his wild threats against Israel.

It was early evening now. About to leave at day’s end, he hunched over the papers on his desk, his aching head in his hands. Perhaps it was a feeling like his own, the impossible knot of exhaustion and curiosity, coming once too often, which drove his father out of the diplomatic service where he had worked for over thirty years.

The telephone rang on his desk. Eli’s thin, careful voice reported his news from London. As he spoke of the American Embassy on alert, its computers quarantined and re-coded, the chief surveyed his littered desk, and a thought coalesced for him, clarifying the besieging ambiguities of the reports he read, the riddle of unexpected events and global alert. As he hung up the receiver, the hunch stunned him: For whatever reason, the United States was withholding intelligence about Iraq’s planning and capacity to attack Israel. Arie foresaw the Scuds raining down on them at 3000 feet a second; out of the night sky, they would plummet, and this time he believed some of them would bear 100 kiloton nuclear bombs onto Tel Aviv and Haifa and Jerusalem. The global powers were about to allow the unspeakable to happen.

A fog of secrecy could envelop their computers; a gibberish of codes could erupt from their mouths. He stood over his desk—his heavy body poised as he surveyed the to papers scattered before him. Amid the fluid ambiguities of the crisis menacing his nation, Arie felt the possibility of drowning.

He picked up the phone on his desk and punched in an American code connecting him to William Webster, the Director of the CIA, a number known only to him, the Prime Minister, and Mossad’s General Director in Tel Aviv. The line was silent. He punched in a second number. He reached the Prime Minister’s secretary, and then he waited for thirty seconds.

“What is it?” the Prime Minister said.

“Our phone link to the CIA has broken down, Yitzhak,” he said. “And not only that.” He began coolly to recite the added evidence to his superior, the facts about Eli, Ezra, and Haim.

“You can’t contact the CIA!” the Prime Minister interrupted. “So it’s happened! Factions in Washington have always wanted to betray us. I remember every time they’ve conspired with the vermin.”

“Yitzhak, I’m convinced that Iraq is planning to attack us with Scud missiles, and some may have nuclear payloads. At this point, it seems possible that the United States will tolerate it, will tolerate regional nuclear war.”

“A nuclear attack,” he bellowed into the phone. He would contact Washington immediately. If he were not satisfied with what they said, they would wish they’d never been born. The Cabinet advisory group would meet immediately. Arie must gather and present all the facts for them.

* * *

Two Jews made their way up separate, monumental steps in Washington and Moscow. In the west the statue of Lincoln—martyr to the ideal of racial equality—sat in judgment over the queenly, rounded city of American power. To the east, in Moscow, the monument was the tomb of Lenin, father of the worker’s state, dedicated to economic equality and teetering now on the brink of dissolution. The revolutionary’s corpse lay within, intact though dead early in the last century and a full sixty years after Lincoln returned to earth. Sasha meandered back down to the huge square—Krasaia Proshchad—and he felt suddenly surrounded by the tombs of every variety: Gorky whom Sasha admired, John Reed whom he did not, Krupskaya who was Lenin’s unhesitating wife, Kirov whose assassination helped to bring on the purge of Jews and the rest in the l930’s, and finally Stalin and a city of the dead.


Lincoln was poised in back of Dan Reisman. His hair black in the morning sun, he looked out toward the needle of the Washington Monument and beyond toward the Capitol building. The cement and granite phallus reflected the taste of a Mussolini—the fascist imagination, not the revolutionary spirit of the first American president. He gazed out over the vista of Washington. The city’s power was open and confident, whereas Jerusalem’s force was of necessity secretive and knotted by the millennia—yet it was not frail, as ancient as it was.


Sasha—thin, anonymous, a face of iron beneath his dark lamb’s wool hat—waited near the tomb in the Moscow evening already turning wintry in the last week of September. He was one of the few pedestrians now that the tomb and the Kremlin offices were closed for the night, and he stood almost alone on the walkway, watching the approach of Block, a programmer in the Defense Ministry. Short and heavy, Block too was Jewish, but he had displayed enough conformity, the talent of assimilation, that the bureaucracy seemed to overlook that he was a Jew, and he himself appeared to forget. As a Muscovite descended over the generations from Marranos on his mother’s side and

Odessa Jews on his father’s, Block was as urban, neurotic, and complex a survivor of the city as any Londoner or Parisian. Yet, here as in the West, the schizophrenia of such a life could not obliterate the past; new regime or old, neither his ministry superiors nor he himself ever completely forgot. Indeed, his Jewishness had insured a certain limitation in advancement. That he was a Jew validated the liberal awareness and clandestine contacts that riddled the proper surface of his life. So he had come to the middle of Red Square, this unexpected, therefore safe, place to meet his anonymous friend.


In Washington, the morning traffic washed over the throughways leading to the Pentagon behind Dan and into the central city before him. He watched his contact leave a Volvo in the monument’s parking area, and walk up the stairs toward him. The crew-cut American was dressed in a gray suit, and a thin silver thread in its weave flashed in the morning sun. Barton, on his way to work, was a Pentagon consultant, as rightwing as necessary. The well-off and professorial defense expert would anywhere else be a fascist. Here he was a centrist, with an unexpected sense of loyalty to the land of his Jewish ancestors: such was the idiosyncrasy to which he was entitled.


The Muscovite whispered to Sasha: “I may have been followed. Be careful.” Circumspectly, they slowed the pace of their stroll across the square. They came upon steaming carts and street vendors selling sausages, papers, ice-cream, and before them the high windows of the Russia Hotel framed glimmers of night life. As they walked, Sasha speech was quiet and blunt, as it was whatever the work he took up—as black-marketer, photographer, agent. “Now with the Allied blockade of Iraq, be prepared, Block, for the worse sort of shit.”

Block seemed to turn Sasha’s words over in his mind, and he spoke with sullen fastidiousness: “Marshall Kutsov has been living at his office since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. They say he is detained against his will, is soon to be relieved of cooking up any more maneuvers.” Block smiled, fat faced and urbane. “I thought his quarantine was peculiar because they installed new computer lines and equipment in his top floor suite. This is done to celebrate not a purge but an entrenchment.”

A car’s backfire cracked through the night, and Block crouched awkwardly. “I don’t make a good spy, Sasha. I’m too fat to dodge the bullets,” he laughed.

“Find out more,” Sasha growled. “Why is Kutsov sealed off? Why new equipment?” They soon parted. The Moscow night closed in over them as each turned to walk in an opposite direction.


Barton’s voice was crisp and efficient. Closely shaved and upright in his well-tailored suit, he yet looked exhausted. No one else was standing early this morning before the stone statue of Lincoln. “Something is afoot, Dan,” he began his anxious exposition; “the President has placed the Pentagon on full alert; Secretary Cheney has met with the CIA director in emergency session. The possibility of a regional nuclear conflict is real, Dan. New strategic plans targeting Baghdad have been formulated. There is speculation that Iraq may be equipping their mobile ballistic missiles with…”

A crack came from the grassy slope to one side of them. Barton slapped to the stone, blood spreading red through his white shirt and seeping through his gray suit to the marble floor of the Lincoln Memorial.

* * *

The setting sun had cast a shrine of red up over the Judean hills. Arie drove along a highway threading near the Knesset. Nearby was Hebrew University where he had studied decades before. Since then, like the new city itself, the campus had deepened its roots and grown a sheltering arbor of foliage. Beyond the plateaus of growth, the chasm of suburbs, and the populated hills, Arie glimpsed the Old City beckoning, ancient, surviving, repeatedly razed and risen like excavated Troy.

Moving slowly by new housing projects, his sports car left the city behind. Arie made his way toward the apartment complex in the suburban heights where he and his family lived, beyond the reach of the ancient view, and he accelerated now as he approached his hilltop apartment. The sky was dark purple as the car raced up the incline to the garage built beneath the complex. Swerving abruptly into his parking space and turning off the ignition key, Arie remained in the driver’s seat. Elena waited upstairs, with her eyes of pure blue, her body pliant still after bearing two children. They had first met during the spring of l973—at a concert held in the new garden amphitheater under the shadow of the Montefiori windmill. He picked her face out from the crowd, her red hair. Each of them had come to hear a visiting American singer, and Arie had made his friends sit near her in the audience.

After the concert they met and walked together past new buildings on ancient hills, to Ben Yehuda Street. At a coffee shop, they drank bitter cappuccinos and basked in the calm, late afternoon sweetness of the spring. In May, they had picnicked in the Judean hills, and he remembered her soft beauty as they made love next to the gnarled, exposed roots of ancient trees. By year’s end, when they returned from the Yom Kippur war, they married. Then, with a master’s degree in history, he had begun his early success at Interior. Before the children came, Elena—fluent in English, French, German, Arabic, as well as Hebrew—was a translator for the Foreign Ministry. Rami considered her more an American than an Israeli, though he acknowledged that she had spent much of her childhood on a kibbutz and that, even now as the Intifada had begun, Elena had the courage to maintain her friendships with Arabs. Above all, his father could not deny his bond to the two grandchildren.

Gily, the youngest, had Arie’s thick brown hair and a dancer’s body. Moshe was flying back from American now, after visiting Arie’s Uncle Morris—aged, but still alert—in Los Angeles; his trip was a present for his Bar Mitzvah, an extravagance, yet the boy was growing rapidly: it was time for such a trip. His mind was burgeoning, and his body was on the verge of manhood. Arie used to lift Moshe as a child high into the air above his head: he was reproducing in the new generation the same tie in body and mind which he had with his father, who held his arm even now when they walked. His mother’s anxious hands had always fluttered away from Arie, trying to rest on his shoulder, his arm, trying to reach him yet never quite connecting. Were his hands firm now, or did they withhold themselves from Moshe when in play the boy would buffet himself against his father, who tried to ward him off?

Last April they had driven together out into the Negev during Passover vacation. His son was not quite thirteen then, and already there was a fuzz below his black side-burns. Moshe had walked out onto the desert floor strewn with wildflowers blooming after a wet winter, and set up a small rocket constructed of aluminum with solid fuel he had prepared, a narrow beveled motor, a fuse he lit on the blooming Negev. Moshe had kept a record with their camera: Elena and Arie standing on the desert with the highway in the distance, the rocket in its launcher, ignited, rising an inch, a foot, a yard, and then dropping in a billow of smoke. Not a success, yet it was not a failure, for he had drawn his parents out onto the Negev and revealed his familiarity with images of technology and war. His son had grown restless and possessed. With his war toy on the desert floor, Moshe had stirred his father’s love and his unspoken censure.

Now he parked his car and walked toward the exterior stairs to his second floor flat. The control returned which he had sought as he drove home, the mastery over splintering surmises. Rocky hills rolled beyond him, and in the twilit distance he saw an oasis of machinery and darkening green, a kibbutz far to the west.

* * *

Elena worked her knife over the fresh basil and parsley, which she would add to the chopped cucumber, tomatoes, and peppers, red and green in the bowl. She stood among the white appliances, and occasionally she glanced out the kitchen window. Before her, there rose the crest of a hill and on it a cypress tree, which the contractors allowed to remain standing. Beneath the tree was a play area where the children of doctors, engineers, and government officials would slide and climb. It was getting late, the children had been called in to supper, and the sky was darkening above the tree with its thick limbs and leaves. Arie had said he would be late.

An Arab maid had taught Elena the secrets of the region’s foods, finely chopping herbs and vegetables for the salad, or adding cumin and cayenne to humus. Jena had cooked in her parents’ household through her childhood; Miriam her mother had known only American cooking and a few Eastern European dishes. Elena continued to visit Jena in her tenement near the Old City even now during the Intifada. Garrulous and contradictory, the old woman repeated each time she saw Elena that she was glad to live among the Jews, a warm, sharp people. And after all the state had her pay no income tax. But the Jews would never be forgiven. Her son was landless and consumed by bitterness and rage at injustice; she felt so sad, for she could hardly communicate with him anymore. The Jews denied her people hope—that was the root of the matter, Jena would cry to Elena. No matter what their intentions, the fact was they were assassinating Palestine. And yet the old woman did not allow her views to poison her friendship with Elena, whom she embraced each time she visited. She loved the Milstein girl she had helped to raise.

Elena took up the basil and parsley and sprinkled it over the vegetables. She poured the olive oil with lemon juice and minced garlic over the salad. Elena took up the bowl and brought it out to the dining table.

Little Gily was sitting across the room on the couch, and she peered through an illustrated tale of Chelm, which Elena had read to her daughter late in the afternoon. She sat down and put her arm around the girl, patting her brown hair. Gily kept gazing at the pages. Elena’s love for her children—which made her hold and touch and read and sing to them—seemed so much a dependence, would it be a qualm for them later? What were they doing to Gily and Moshe, bringing them into such a world as this?

The tale of Chelm—with its medieval idiots and savants—sat in the girl’s lap. It was adapted for children by a Yiddish novelist in America, and the familiar tale was here translated into English. Her daughter slowly turned each page with its rainbow of image and color. Earlier the mother had read out the text in English, the language of escape for some—from the tension of Israeli life. Seeking such a withdrawal and escape into English, into American life, was a violation. It contradicted the yearning itself within her. Yet here they were reading the tale of Chelm in English, and it had been translated from the Yiddish, by a novelist who leered and gamboled as a ghost speaking about his dead dybbuks in a dead language. Here they were peering into the past from which the writer spoke, and she saw the Nazis descend on Chelm and level it to the earth.

Elena held her child, awaiting Arie’s arrival. He could protect them; perhaps he would help her now. Her dread must finally mark her as a failure; its cause remained obscure and ever present. It could not be frustration with Arie whom she loved to please and to be pleased by. And it was not the vehemence which they and their friends argued about politics; for she was not shy or suppressed, and even before she had left home to do her term of army service as a general’s secretary, she had thrown herself passionately into politics.

Her dread seemed to loom or recede according to a rhythm other than the personal or the communal. Its cause seemed a shadow over the land, the globe itself, over all their lives, parents and children alike.

She had held Moshe’s hand tightly until the last moment when they took Moshe after his Bar Mitzvah to Lod airport on his way to visit Arie’s Uncle Morris in Los Angeles. Moshe had teased her, saying he wanted to stay close to her until he boarded, to keep holding her hand, and when the time came he just walked straight away. But as he came to Customs, he turned and ran to kiss her and hug his father. Then he left, and the anxiety enclosed her once again. What caused her sense of doom she could not fathom: it was a condition of Israeli life for her.

Gily snuggled at her mother’s side.

“Daddy will be home soon, and so will Grandpa.”

“Will you cuddle me, mama, even when you’re old?” the little girl asked.

Alive in the circle of each other’s arms, Elena and her child listened to Arie as he unlocked the door and boomed hello into the hillside apartment.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Notes on the Modern period - 10 - T. S. Eliot's authority

It’s notable about modern poetry that, while its poets are intent on judging – with bitter skepticism – the present and the entire course of civilization, they idealize the Renaissance and its poetry as a model of what they hope to achieve, and for each poet a different period of the Renaissance is at issue. For Yeats, it is the high Renaissance; with his frequent references to Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, he locates its vision of a “unity of being” as an apogee in the scheme he devises of cultural “cycles” from Homer to the present, as described in his book “A Vision.” For Ezra Pound, the ideal model is to be found in the late Medieval and early Renaissance. And for T. S. Eliot, the final emanation of the Renaissance ideal is the work of the Metaphysical poets, who are essentially ‘medievalized’ in Eliot’s account of them. Donne and Herbert are made bearers of a unity of being achieved under the aegis of the Christian sacrament, an indivisibility of thought from feeling by which these poets “feel their thought as immediately as the odor of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility.” And in Eliot’s view (in “The Metaphysical Poets”), by the mid-seventeenth century with the increasing secularization of politics and society, “a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered.” Eliot hopes to create poetry that can restore that ultimately sacred juncture between feeling and intellect and forge an imaginative form that is self-sustaining in the face of the ruin of modernity, of its cultural disintegration and squalor. “Self-sustaining” sounds familiar, for it is a tenet of the French symbolists’ early modernist aesthetic that the art work should be autonomous and thus escape the deadnesses of modern prefabricated language, thought, and feeling. For Eliot, such autonomy is achieved by impersonality, “an escape from emotion… [and] personality” (as he states in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”); “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates,” and the “transmutation” of passion which results achieves what Eliot elsewhere calls an “objective correlative,” a nicely mathematical-sounding term for the autonomous, self-sustaining image in literature.

Like Henry James, Eliot was an American expatriate, and even more than the novelist, he embraced a European identity. It is not only that he became an English citizen and a devout member of the Anglican Church; it is, as he writes in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” that the abode housing and finally possessing his imagination is “the mind of Europe… – a mind which [the poet] learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind.” With his conservatism, his European allegiance, and his authoritative style, Eliot’s imagination survived Europe’s mutilating fascism, its self-immolating wars in which millions perished, including the gifted generation of the War Poets, Brooke, Owen, Rosenberg, etc. Eliot, along with Yeats, takes up where the war poets ended – and died – in attempting to answer the question of how the power of the imagination can be extended to include the torn and broken nature of modern life in the midst and in the aftermath of the World War. Eliot’s ‘answer’ differs greatly from Yeats’, despite the influence of each on the other. As I tried to show in an earlier post, Yeats struggles to affirm how the imagination both shapes and is shaped by the experience of passion and suffering and in that way is connected to deeply felt emotion. His poetic voice affirms this connection by projecting an authority of self-reckoning and reckoning.

Eliot, in contrast, seeks the authority of “impersonality” – that of a sage and ironic guide, whose detachment enables him to register yet to position himself above the vagaries of experience and history, to judge the entire course of civilization, and in his later work to affirm a religious purgation as the sole source of language and value. As an essayist, that authority helped to establish the modern canon of literary thought in his era, both its formalism and its texts. As we saw, his critical voice conveys the gravity of impersonality, both in the sense of bearing the weight of its authoritative judgments and in the sense of emanating from a grave familiarity with death, with the deadened, burned-out self (Yeats remarks that Eliot seems incapable of sufficient “self-surrender” by which he meant openness to the resinous life of the heart). Eliot’s criticism projects just such grave authority, for example, when he speaks of the condition of dissociation “from which we have never recovered,” or even when he faults Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” as a failure, for it supposedly does not attain the impersonal ideal of the “objective correlative.”

It is the poetry that best illustrates the force and authority of Eliot’s imagination as he constructs a vision of modernity, of what he later termed “The Wasteland.” From early in his career, he was a master of control as he laced together incantatory repetitions of often squalidly deflating sounds and words. “Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, / The muttering retreats / Of restless nights and one-night cheap hotels… / Streets that follow like a tedious argument / Of insidious intent / To lead you to an overwhelming question . . . / Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ Let us go and make our visit.” This mocking speaker is only one of the discordant voices in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which presents a stream of selves in which speakers ride on waves of shifting images, sustained conceits (for example, the recurrent “yellow fog”) amid other schizoid fragments of city life. Here is one of the voices, hurting and bitter: “And I have known the eyes already, known them all – / The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase, / And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, / When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, / Then how should I begin / To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?” Eliot’s control over these voices is powerfully sustained, as they pour out their mockery or bafflement or self-loathing while registering the conditions of modern urban life. Finally, the coalesced voices in the poem yearn to be submerged in the cleansing magical waves which promise rebirth, truly in the stream of language itself, even as death inevitably approaches when their own “human voices wake us, and we drown.” Life appears to equal death in this early poem, and the same seems to hold in his modernist masterpiece of the nineteen-twenties, “The Wasteland,” to which I’ll turn in my next post.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Acts of Terror and Contrition: A Nuclear Fable - a novella about Israel

As a slight pause in my posts on modernism, here is the opening of my unpublished political novella about Israel. [Let me recommend in any case the writings of Grossman and Oz, for example In the Land of Israel (Harvest in Translation).]

“If anybody had ever struggled with a soul, I am the man. And I wasn’t arguing with a lunatic either. Believe me or not, his intelligence was perfectly clear—concentrated, it is true, upon himself with horrible intensity, yet clear; and therein was my only chance.” —Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

He had no future. He disdained it. He was a force. His thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction. He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable—and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world. —Conrad’s The Secret Agent

Part One:
Wednesday, September 26, 1990

Arie did not exercise his prerogative to leave early on these High Holiday evenings. Not that the autumn holidays signified to him; they were rituals honored more by silence than observation. And the Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait required his full attention. Two weeks ago, the American President threatened Saddam with war if he did not withdraw, and these first ten days of the New Year signaled only the inevitability of war.

It had been during these same high holy days nearly a decade ago that Beirut had exploded before his eyes. It was in these same days following Rosh Hashanah; he had been stationed there and seen the hundreds of bloodied bodies in Sabra and Chatila. The dead Palestinians had gravel stuck to their wet red faces, or sometimes they were torn to pieces, without heads or hands, or with their inner organs blown out. The Maronite soldiers would dodge into the doorways where Arie and a few fellow operatives were assigned to watch; the Christians would look blankly at the Jews, would look not for approval but for recognition.

Blood was appropriate to such New Year’s rites, the pagan mixed with the sacred. Shed blood was a sort of harvest and renewal and a harbinger. 5771—the New Year just dawning promised to be bloodier than ever. So the generic rituals were celebrated silently by Arie, without orthodox fanfare; they were a mere ornament. Always, for him, it was fact more than form that compelled attention, and his mind amassed fact after fact, always finding interest in their divergences from the expected. The fact that pictures taken by the spacecraft Magellan had yesterday revealed active volcanoes erupting amid the churning clouds of Venus’ surface. Or the fact that today the Russian Foreign Minister had for the first time adopted the words Americans were using to describe their global domination: the new world order: “An act of terrorism has been perpetuated against the emerging new world order.” Or there was the fact that six American Marine Corps OV-10D Bronco aircraft had arrived this morning in Saudi Arabia. Not Israel.

“Not Israel,” he said to two aides sitting on the black vinyl couch before his desk.

“Who needs those planes more than we?” Simon asked. He lit a cigarette, speaking as he dangled it between his fingers. He was a tall man with unsuccessfully combed dark hair.

“The Saudis need them more than we,” Rachel said. “America will mount its war against Iraq from Saudi Arabia. Not Israel. This morning the UN proclaimed the air embargo of Iraq. Tomorrow will come war—or if not tomorrow, next month. Soon.”

“We need Broncos and Eagles and Patriots all the more,” Simon spoke directly to the woman, with her neat short blonde hair and small sinewy hands. “We need them because Saddam says it is Israel who will pay with blood if the Security Council enforces the embargo against him. He declares holy war on us! When he sends his dozens of Scud missiles against us, we will need all the Patriot missiles we can get to intercept the bombs.”

“‘The fire will eat up half of Israel,’” Arie quoted ironically. “Can you tell me why always they say ‘fire’?”

The autumn sun glowed now above Jerusalem. The city stretched before Arie, who gazed out his office window. Together the three of them sat in the top story of a steel and glass building rooted in the ancient soil which David and Solomon had trod. A fortified lot with low reinforced walls circled the building like a mote; on the roof were shielded weapons to maintain the integrity of Arie’s fortress.

“What does fire mean?” Rachel asked, mocking and skeptical; she placed a hand on the classified report resting by her on the vinyl couch. “Ever since Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and President Bush’s September 11th speech threatening war, Saddam has targeted Israel, and not only with words. Tarik Aziz said this morning, ‘We will attack Israel, and we will burn its cities to the ground. The whole region will not see light for decades. Neither the land of oil nor Israel will ever be the same.’ Iraq is threatening nuclear war against us.”

“It must not be,” Arie said quietly, with his habitual air of ironic distraction, as if he were no longer addressing his two aides: “There have been enough burnt offerings this century to fill the belly of the hungriest god.” He rose to have them leave so that in isolation he would sort through the facts and possibilities.

Rachel’s grey eyes stared at him as she and Simon stood. “Nobody could have foreseen how things are coming together,” she said.

Arie turned calmly to Simon: “We should have foreseen. Keep me informed about anything you notice out of the ordinary, any unexplained details. At once. No business as usual. Reach me at home later, at any time.”

The man and woman left to join the functionaries who filled Arie’s building. He had known the two of them in college during the sixties. Rachel had been a brilliant student, standing out also because she was blonde with thin arms and face and chest tanned mahogany from life on a kibbutz. An émigré in her early teens, she had escaped from the shrinking community of German-Jewish survivors in Frankfurt. Simon had been a young university friend born in Tel Aviv, a Sabra, sharp and supremely dedicated.

They were people Arie trusted, part of the cell he developed at Intelligence. As young men and women, together they had marched into battle in l967, and when he became head of Mossad Special Operations, he surrounded himself with them, assigning them key roles here and around the globe. Each was invaluable for his ruthless courage. Such courage was at the core for him, a solitary and spontaneous strength, apart from all common want or any need to be wanted.

He did not know what the roots of such courage were, but he honored it when it arose. And he found it in Simon and Rachel, in Ezra and Dan and a half dozen others, including his friends Issam and Baruch, who had been assassinated. Arie noted his dispassion at the thought of their deaths. It was a chasm of detachment into which he would march without hesitation. He sat back heavily in his leather chair. Perhaps he was getting soft. The force of his stout body had an immediate impact on his subordinates, yet he wondered if he were becoming fat, a complacent bureaucrat. It was repellent: he would not allow it.

His sun-drenched office was lined with gray metal cabinets and tables laden with files; in one corner by the wall of windows was a computer console with its cable plunging through the floor and down the four stories to the basement. In the middle of the blue carpet were the vinyl couch and chrome chairs that seemed out of place in the cluttered setting. The room’s modernity had been tamed by Arie’s intense will, transforming everything he touched. The office did not look new despite the furniture or the contemporary expanse of window by his steel desk.

In one locked drawer he kept personal papers, a letter his mother had written to him a decade ago, just before she died of wounds from a bomb launched from southern Lebanon and falling on the city center in Nahariyah. It was one more of those unrecorded acts of terror or contrition or grit and bravery which constituted daily life in Israel. Next to the letter was the only weapon Arie kept with him in his office, a souvenir of the concentration camp from which his parents had been liberated months before he was born. His father had given him the German officer’s silver Luger, so that he would not forget. Before he stood to leave, he opened the envelope and reread the ending of her letter.

“This fog thickens. I don’t know where my legs are sometimes; this paper and pen sometimes disappear. I remember the rocket whooshing in. The sun was baking my back. I saw the crystal blue of the Mediterranean stretching beyond the town. Then I heard it rushing in, cracking the air closer. Not all your Intelligence could keep that Palestinian rocket from finding its way to me walking in the burning Nahariya sun. I felt spun into the sky, wheeling, and then slowly circling. Now when you and the others visit, I see you revolve slowly before me. We are all weightless and irradiated with a special light. Not like Mediterranean light at all. Now it turns to fog which closes in on my hand as I write, on my mouth when I speak.”

It was five o’clock on Wednesday, the eighth evening of the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah had passed; Friday night and Saturday would bring Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest of the calendar.

* * *

These streets did not shelter, the early autumn sun did not warm, and the elegant buildings did not bear ancient witness. The Avenue Foch swept by Ezra, from the Etoile toward the Bois de Boulogne, its mile-long lines of chestnut trees sheltering gilded houses. Already in late September, the leaves of some trees turned red and pale gold.

With his Renault parked two blocks from the Arc de Triomphe, he walked to the Etoile on the wide avenue designed by Baron Haussmann. Was Haussmann a Jew?

He rounded the ring of the Etoile, plunging into the crowd flowing over the Champs Elysees this Wednesday afternoon near the Drugstore. A hangout of Americans in Paris. It was an American whom he would meet here in the crowd. This morning the phone had rung in the basement office of the Israeli Embassy; the anonymous caller spoke the blank and slouching English of an American, stony, mumbling through the receiver.

“Please speak up.”

“I have some information for you.”

“Who are you?”

“I have something for you.”

“Who are you?”

“Jaeger.”

There was silence.

“About Iraq.”

“About Iraq,” Ezra repeated. "Naturally."

“I have some information. About the missiles in western Iraqi missiles. I want to meet.”

“I suppose so. In St. Severin, there’s a café at...”

“The Arc of Triumph. Inside the northeast corner at noon. I’ll know you.” The stony voice stopped. The phone had clicked off.

Ezra crossed the wide boulevard of the Champs Elysees and descended into the underground. Traffic rumbled over his head, and a memory suddenly poured through him from years ago: Baghdad is a distant blankness down the highway. He sits in a battered Fiat two miles from Osirak. A tide of slick mirages sweeps over the baked asphalt. He has infiltrated Abu Ibrahim’s cell in Baghdad, and he is Arie’s primary ground contact in Iraq. He watches the F-16 draw an invisible line across the slate-blue sky and instantly release its load of bombs. The domed head of the nuclear installation juts out of the desert, and when the bombs hit, the bowels of the building rumble and burst. A direct hit. Ezra turns the car ignition, and slowly the wheels turn over the burning highway, heading south. He sees a great cloud of fire and sand billow up and out, with flecks of debris—bits of metal, stone, and flesh—reeling in the air all about the compound.

Wind and music swept through the walkway beneath the Etoile, and a group of rock musicians filled the passage with their blaze of rhythm. Ezra’s face stiffened. When he passed musicians with their cases open playing Mozart or Vivaldi, his soul soared into the region of solace and forgetting.

He lumbered up the steps two at a time to join the tourists by the massive legs of the Arc de Triomphe. The cement island swelled with the crowd.

The Champs Elysees swept past into the body of Paris, down to the Place de la Concorde, the Tuileries, the Louvre. How fragile the city was, its brilliant vista subject to the compass of a man’s gaze. He walked by the gas flame of the Unknown Soldier, and his feet slapped over the pavement stones commemorating the dead in each world war. All a city offered was its past, its accumulation of deaths. Slowly he moved back toward the stairs to the underground passage. He passed the American rockers again, and he re-emerged on the avenue, crossing to the entrance of the Drugstore.

Ezra sat at the bar in back, elevated above the diners eating their Friday lunches, and he ordered a cognac. His fingers warmed the oval of glass from which he slowly sipped. Arie would insist that the truth be unearthed. No fact or rumor was too trivial to be ignored, the chief of Special Operations always said. Agent and head had known each other first as students at Hebrew University. Five years ago, Arie had become head of the service. Such was his will. He had risen to become Chief while Ezra had roved from one operation to another, chief of none.

He walked back through the glittering hall of the Drugstore and stopped at a bank of phones. In the Embassy, Haim answered.

“Our man didn’t show up. Any word there?”

“Nothing.”

Haim was six years younger than Ezra, but it was brilliance and temperament, not youth, which gave the younger man’s voice its taciturn purity. He would go far. Haim reminded Ezra of a Mossad hero, Baruch Cohen, who in the nineteen-sixties had exposed the terrorist Carlos. The PLO murdered him some years later.

“Brilliant!” Ezra said, and he imagined his colleague sitting patient and cool behind the steel door of their shared office at the Embassy.

Ezra emerged from The Drugstore into the autumn air on the Etoile. He left his black leather coat unbuttoned, fluttering behind him as he walked back down the Avenue Foch and unlocked the door to his blue car. Safely in, Ezra turned the key to the ignition.

* * *

Loyalty was the key to each operation he conducted. His comrades—the vanguard of the loyal—followed him with a fervor born of the terrible conjunction of despair and hope. Inside the book-lined study of his second-story apartment, this handful of men stood to say goodbye. They were leaving to have dinner with their parents, their brothers, their friends, while he would sit in his apartment reading and thinking and eating his customary portion for dinner—yogurt cheese, olives, and a circle of sesame-crusted bread. Ascetic, disciplined by anger and isolation, Sayeed abjured eating with friends or relatives here in East Jerusalem, even with his mother, who lived twenty minutes away—she was a fine homemaker, a skilled cook, a refined temperament, forced by poverty and her husband’s death to serve an Israeli household, to take orders from less-than-human beings, with their false superiority and cruel power. He looked out the window of his study at the busy avenue below. Scattered vendors sold stacks of sesame rounds and sandwiches as pedestrians hurried home in the darkening dusk through the imprisoning net of Israeli checkpoints spread over their portion of the city.

His four followers planned to meet him surreptitiously at midnight when they would become five vigilantes patrolling the Temple Mount, so that no Israeli could desecrate with impunity the Arab holy place. Ishmael, Ghosh, Mohammed, and Gamel were bound to him by their respect for his learning—in Islam and in revolutionary thought—and for his pragmatic imagination, his capacity to conceive and plan actions that could help end Israel’s grip on their lives. But the five friends were joined together also by their desperation at that grip of oppression, at the Israelis turning the state into a machine of terror, whose sought-for order was the mad order of apartheid and deportation. And Sayeed’s friends also were bound to him above all by a shared faith in the vision he, a stocky and diminutive servant of God, offered of glorious transcendence: not simply the beautiful reward in heaven, but the possibility of transforming life on earth into a new-born state of grace, free of both Israeli oppression and Western materialism.

“How can Palestine escape from this intolerable dictatorship?” he asked them this afternoon. “Our souls will atrophy and expire unless we stop the juggernaut of Israeli oppression. Israel must be given a dire and decisive warning, for it must turn away from the dark abyss of ethnic cleansing, from its genocidal goal. We will strike the fear of God in those who aim to obliterate us. No longer can we tolerate these vicious dogs.”

His listeners murmured their assent, curious what warning Sayeed planned. Yes, he had found a loyal cadre of desperate men, willing to dedicate their lives, even unto death, to ending the Israeli dictatorship. They were neither dissatisfied PLO fighters nor Hamas hangers-on. These were educated, unemployed, devout Muslims who were at the end of their patience. He had found them in coffee houses and in the adult education courses he taught, and he had drawn them into his private study group here a few blocks from the American Embassy. He had taught them about the dead souls of Western culture, for example how the racists Conrad and Eliot had identified the horror of the wasteland in the West, the hollow man, the papier-maché Mephistopheles. Anything, Sayeed told them, was better than the soulless malignancy of Western imperialism. And he had initiated these men—his former students, now his comrades—into a vision of the life of action, taking arms against the sea of struggle. He implied that he had recruited Abu Ganayem, the first suicide martyr, who had taken over Bus 405 a year ago on its way from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and driven it over a cliff above Quyat Ye-Arin; the explosion killed fifteen Israelis and himself and injured scores of others. His comrades sat rapt and asked him what he planned now, what final warning was he engineering. He had refused to answer.

* * *

Haim’s Fiat swerved into the ring of the Etoile, then slowed as it turned onto the Avenue Haussmann. Two blocks ahead there were a cordon of French police and a ring of rope. He nodded to a man about twenty-five, leaning nonchalantly against the trunk of a chestnut tree near where he parked. Like Haim, the man had close-cropped black hair, and both had the olive skin of Sephardic Jews, though the young man by the tree was darker. He was a Tunisian, not a mixture like Haim, whose mother was Sephardic and father Ashkenazi.

“Anything?” Haim asked.

“Nothing.”

The two slowly strolled to the police blockade. A uniformed Frenchman eyed them and then turned to scan the other passers-by.

The windows of the nearby mansions were shattered. Bits of glass and metal were strewn over the gardens, the sidewalk, the road. Their fences had fallen into gardens, and the iron-railings had twisted into concave skeletons. The ivy on the toppled fences was ashen, and the chestnut trees were blackened on either side above the hole where Ezra had been. The rear of a Mercedes and the front of a Ferrari were burned and torn hulks.

Haim turned abruptly, walking back along the police barrier on the edge of the wide Avenue. Nissim hurried to catch up amid the lunchtime strollers.

Beneath the chestnut tree shedding its leaves in the September breeze, Haim turned to speak to him, and the young man slammed suddenly up against the tree trunk, a hole sliced silently into the brown forehead. Haim, on the sidewalk, crawled in a spray of blood, which covered his face and clothes. Noontime pedestrians screamed and gesticulated above him. Police grabbed him and lifted him from the pavement.

“Name. Identification.”

His mumble hardly audible, Haim handed the officer his papers. He seethed beneath his fey staring face. Wailing police cars began spreading another net of surveillance. Ambulance attendants came to cover Nissim’s head and body with a sheet and bore him away on a stretcher. Haim leaned by his Fiat and spit the gall gathering in his mouth into the Avenue Haussmann.

* * *

“Father.”

“How are you?”

“You’re coming tonight.”

“Elena said, seven-thirty.”

“I’ve called you on impulse.” Arie had the line continually sanitized; nothing could be left to chance. “I want to tell you about something here.”

“About Iraq?”

At seventy-five, Rami had still a full and plangent voice just as when Arie was a child and his father joined the Foreign Service. As a diplomat, his voice was always warm and pliant, willing to change a word here, a point there, until his opponents found themselves agreeing to what Rami all along had sought.

“One of my men in Paris was murdered in a bombing this afternoon. I just heard. There was an attempt on the life of another. An American is involved. It’s possible someone in the CIA.”

“So, it’s happened.”

“It’s happened.” Arie laughed grimly. “Now it’s more than an academic question: Who serves whom? What are they trying to tell us?”

“You’ll clear it up. I’m sure it’s some confusion. Who was killed?” Over the years, he had watched his son create a hierarchy of agents and play the role of brilliant warlord over Mossad’s Special Operations.

“Ezra. Haim Lipsky is in Paris too. He was nearly killed.”

“I know you consider them fine men, but...”

“There are no buts, father. These men and women are more than fine; to protect our nation, they must be absolutely vigilant and firm.”

“Vigilant and firm? Israel can’t live inside an iron curtain, Arie; a nation is not something to be hoarded. We’re a living, growing organism. It’s a matter of overcoming, of becoming. You know a nation’s real power is its ability to grow. Your task is to help—and to understand.”

“For God’s sake!” Arie shouted over the phone. “Don’t use these cliches on me. And German ones, at that! ‘Overcoming!’“

“Yes, that’s echt Deutsche, isn’t it?” Rami said; “but what about ‘vigilant and firm’?”

Always there was the old man’s teasing, his lecturing, and his crippled faith. The son felt opposition but no contempt for his father, who always thought dialectically; for him, there was still one more point, another angle not to be ignored. Finally Arie’s quiet voice broke the silence. “Whatever you say, father. We’ll see you at seven-thirty, no?”

“It will work out, Arie.”

Rami lowered the receiver into its cradle and sat still in his apartment near the Old City. From the side table he lifted a small pot of thick black oriental coffee to pour himself a cup. When his son first entered intelligence service, Arie had been all vigor and confidence, having already risen to the top of the Interior Ministry. And in his first years at Mossad, his son had helped plan the attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor. Rami recalled the day he and the world learned of its success. “Everyone, including the Arabs, is glad we took out the reactor,” Arie had said.

“It’s ironic,” Rami said, “Iraq is the site of Eden: Sumeria. You know the Hebrews emigrated from there. So too did the Palestinians.”

Now Rami lifted a cup of the sweet, black liquid and sipped. He looked out the barred windows of his apartment to the narrow, sunny passageway outside. His son disagreed with him about Israel, for Arie was prepared to give up on the open, imperfect process of politics. His son believed in the purity of hierarchy, in the small cell of chosen individuals, each of whom would protect and defend the integrity of the state. Born in the months after Auschwitz, Arie was an issue of the camp itself, and the white haired survivor felt deeply implicated. What would happen to his son, to Israel itself, this stony, star-bound land? No language existed to tell their need. Words belied and cheapened. “Yet I must try to tell him once more,” he said aloud, and his voice reverberated in the dusty motes of light filtering through the old apartment.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Notes on the Modern period - 9: Yeats and modernity

I want to reiterate some of the features of the modern as we attempt to place Yeats in the perspective of the early twentieth century. In many ways “modernism” is a revolutionary response to the crisis of the self’s relation to community. Though the first decade of the twentieth century seemed to offer a picture of peace, wealth, and empire, in truth a profound agitation for change was occurring, indicated by the movement toward women’s suffrage, the inclusion of labor parties in governments, the rise of nationalist movements among the colonies, and even by the increasing decay and self-indulgence of upper-class culture. In my first two posts, I mentioned these matters as well as revolutionary new ideas in physics, psychology, philosophy, painting, music, and literature. With regard to the sense of community, there was an increasing fragmentation of culture beyond Matthew Arnold’s worst nightmares about Victorian puritanism as opposed to the “sweetness and light” of classical Hellenism. The breach grew ever wider between the semi-literate consumption of mass-produced popular media and the increasingly alienated artists with their turn toward experimentation; modern artists concertedly pursued aestheticism, abstraction and an intentionally paradoxical fragmentation of effect, as well as primitivism and a subversively frank truth-telling. The exploration of art’s form and content became the emblem and stage of freedom. All this ferment and breakdown was suddenly plunged into Europe’s Great War, the great upwelling of primitive violence which was the First World War from 1914 to 1918 and the millions of deaths which nothing seemed able to avoid. The proud achievements of wildly growing technology and science yielded the horror of modern armaments. Partly as a result, modern literature took up the task of judging the entire span of western civilization, which was suffering such an apocalyptic breakdown. For example, in 1919, Yeats writes in “The Second Coming” that “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” and later in the poem, there is the “revelation” that “a vast image” of mythic Sphinx-like violence “moves its slow thighs” to assault modernity – “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”

From 1910 to 1939, Yeats made his greatest contribution to the flowering of modern art. With the other modernists, he confronted the crisis of how art’s language and consciousness itself can exist in the midst of the chaos of a failed society. What is breathtaking, even overwhelming about Yeats is his capacity under the circumstances to grow into a greater and greater poet, cultivating always new modes and resources of imagination from decade to decade; in this, his true peers are Wordsworth and Milton. Yeats began as a dreamy aesthete and Paterian; his first important imaginative transformation occurred around 1900, at the age of thirty-five. Yeats wrote about this period (in “The Trembling of the Veil”) that Pater’s aestheticism had “taught us to walk upon a rope, tightly stretched through serene air, and we were left to keep our feet upon a swaying rope in a storm.” From the experience of the inevitable fall to earth, Yeats made greater and greater poetry. It is not only that he widened the range of diction beyond conventional “literary” diction, or that he widened the range of tone so that it stretched from personal to public, from formal to vernacular within a phrase, from sorrowful to sarcastic, all the while maintaining a distinctive cadence, a voice. The greatness of that poetic voice also results from its continual laying bare of the power and limits of the imagination; with increasing authority, he probes how the imagination infuses and transforms the reality of that fall to earth. The authority of his voice was earned over decades of writing and living as he opened himself to the aesthetic influence of the French Symbolists and then to the new aesthetic force of a stripped down modernist compression (the first via friendship with Arthur Symons and the second with Ezra Pound; he shared rooms with the former in 1900 and the latter in 1911). Yeats never ceased pitting himself against his weaknesses; from his founding of the Abbey Theatre in 1904 onward, he was a shy man who projected himself into the public arena, weathering its exposures and questioning its integrity as well as his own. Yeats’ voice as a poet possesses an authority based on self-consciousness and critique; his voice of reckoning and self-reckoning infuses each of the characters he creates as speakers, including himself.

Many influences fed the poet’s growth. Beyond the high – indeed, tightrope – ideal of “art for art’s sake” and then the French symbolists’ play with silence and subversive nuance, the Nietzschean aesthetic of self-challenging self-creation increasingly shaped his poetry – “whatever flames upon the night / man’s resinous heart has fed.” There was also the Irish independence movement and Yeats’ participation in its imaginative life, celebrating it in his plays (for example, “The Countess Cathleen”) or questioning it in certain poems – the seeming product of “an Irishman enraged by his Irishness.” There was his admiration for and editing of Blake’s poetry with its blend of spiritual yearning and passionate honesty, as well as its mythologizing systems, a taste for which Yeats maintained into his seventies and which yielded many a poem’s imagery as well as his book “A Vision.” And finally there was the fertile influence of revolutionary modernism, not only resulting from Pound’s model of hewn-down concreteness of image, but also from the search to find the language for the experience of Europe at war and the plummet toward independence and civil war in Ireland.

The awareness of how, in the midst of chaos, the imagination shapes language and life never ceases to mark his work. In “Easter 1916,” he casually introduces the rebel leaders – later executed – of the abortive Easter Uprising against British rule in Ireland; he initially uses realistic, deflating phrases about them (“I have passed with a nod of the head / Or polite meaningless words, / Or have lingered awhile and said / Polite meaningless words”). And yet he writes that even the least worthy of the rebels, a “drunken vainglorious lout,…has resigned his part in the casual comedy; / He, too, has been changed in his turn, / Transformed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.” Yeats’ imagery for the rebels’ transformation, the “terrible beauty,” describes the nature of the imagination for him: the fanatic “hearts” of the rebels were “enchanted to a stone / To trouble the living stream” of ordinary life as it changes and lives “minute by minute: / The stone’s in the midst of all” shaping the flux of life. Finally, the stoniness of the verse in the last stanza proclaims that a nation is shaped and lives by such monolithic acts as the rebels’ violent sacrifice. [See Selected Poems And Four Plays of William Butler Yeats.]

Yeats reveals the role of the imagination in shaping society and history, but also in forming the self. In “Among Schoolchildren,” he explores how he – like the children he visits, as an Irish senator – is shaped by the work (the learning and internalization) of images and identities; this is the theme, too, of a late poem “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” about the need toward the end of life to return to the sources of imagination and identity, “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” The last stanza of “Among Schoolchildren” celebrates the inspired labor of the imagination, potentially uniting life and art, image and reality, drawing together spirit and sense, body and soul: “Labour is blossoming or dancing where / The body is not bruised to pleasure soul…. / O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, / How can we know the dancer from the dance?” And in “Sailing to Byzantium,” the aging persona would be released from the “sensual” music of “the young [i]n one another’s arms,” for “This is no country for old men.” Instead he yearns for the “monuments” and music of the spirit, but he insists that the icons of the spirit be formed from the stuff of life; though “An aged man is but a paltry thing,” his soul can and must “clap its hands and sing, and louder sing / For every tatter in its mortal dress.” In “Byzantium,” his deepening of the previous poem’s vision, Yeats evokes the mosaics in the walls of Hagia Sophia, where violent generations of soldiers occupied and slept amid the golden, turquoise, bejeweled mosaics of the basilica. Of these glistening, vibrant artworks he writes: “I hail the superhuman; / I call it death in life and life in death.” As these images of religious passion, of saints and symbolic dolphins loom above the soldiery, “All complexities of fury leave, dying into a dance, an agony of trance, an agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve… / These images that yet fresh images beget, that dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.”

One of Yeats’ later celebrations of the power of the imagination is voiced by a persona called Crazy Jane; her voice and understanding embody Yeats’ vision with great vitality and audacity, particularly in “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop.” As she argues with the latter, a mouthpiece of conventional mores, she uses springing, pithy epigrammatic phrases to celebrate the full cycle of birth, sex, and death, even welcoming her body’s aging, accepting the death of friends, and affirming that she is “learned in bodily lowliness / And in the heart’s pride… / But Love has pitched his mansion in / The place of excrement; / For nothing can be sole or whole / That has not been rent.” Yeats’ insight – a source of his power – is to accept the full cycling of life as the matter of the imagination, the material and source of his images. Simultaneously he recognizes ruin, death, and a vanishing nothingness as vital elements of the process, and that makes his understanding of the imagination particularly modern – for Yeats shows that the low and uncontrolled, the irrational heart and excremental part, are vital to the process of our noblest, most transcendent desire, of love, and alternatively that culture’s variously hallowed images can shape, even as they are shaped by, the moments of our animality.

In my next post, I hope to turn to the “modernity” of T. S. Eliot’s poetry.