Saturday, December 30, 2017

the pariah or fascism

We were in Nimes yesterday. A. was reading the papers and she told me that Israel is naming a station in Jerusalem for Trump – the only president we have ever had who finds some silver lining in the Neo-Nazi movement.
This didn’t surprise me.
I have a theory about the “romantic nations”. Those were nations that were first imagined into existence by the poets and philosophers of the 19th century. Italy and Germany are examples, as if Hungary and Poland. The nation-states thatformed in the period between the 16th and 19th century – the United Kingdom, France, Spain, the United States, among others – were formed not on the principle of privileging a certain ethos, but rather on principles in which monarchy, reason and religion were the operative notions. Germany,Italy, and Hungary. on the other hand, were dreamed into existence by philosophers and writers (Fichte for instance; Leopardi; Kossuth), and the long struggle for nationhood was promoted by the idea of a certain people and language having primacy, creating a home. The late romantic nations like Ireland and, finally, Israel, were shaped by the same forces.
In all these cases, you can detect a cycle: the nation exists as a culture before it exists as a nation; as a nation, it increasingly legitimates itself by an appeal to the superiority of its people; and in the final phase, the nation as an entity actually attacks its culture and what it stood for.
Israel was the result of the amazing flowering of Jewish culture in 19th and early 20th century Europe. You cannot think of any aspect of modernity that was not touched by that culture. Zionism was, originally, infused with the idea that this culture – liberal, erudite, tolerant – could found a nation.
But the seeds for the destruction, or at least the wholesale attack, on that culture are laid by the success of the nation project. We know what fascism meant in Italy and Germany. In Israel, that 19th century Jewish culture, and its ideals, are despised by the leaders in power, who find much more kinship with the violently and vilely anti-semitic rulers of Saudi Arabia than with, say, the great Jewish tradition that it otherwise calls on when, for example, the National Library in Israel claims Kafka’s papers as part of the “heritage” of Israel.
Whether Israel’s romantic nationalism in its blind course, allying itself with the worst enemies of the Jews, is going to destroy Israel, who can say? We can say that “forgiving” anti-semitism if it serves the political project of Israel is no different than forgiving anti-semitism if it serves the political project of France or Germany or the U.S. I expect Netanyahu’s government, any day, to set up monuments to the accusers of Dreyfus. He is about as low as you can get. But in these dark circumstances, it is good to remember that Jewish culture far outstrips the mere political maundering of this iteration of Israel.

The dark alliance of Trump's USA, Saudi Arabia and Israel has sent me back to an essay of Hannah Arendt's, The Jew as Pariah: a hidden tradition. Arendt wrote it in 1944, the year in which, for instance, 800,000 Hungarian jews were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz in the most concentrated convulsion of mass murder within the greater system of mass murder set up by the Nazis. Arendt was saved from the fate of other European Nazis by the usual narrow circumstances, getting out in 1941 as one of the Jews aided by Varian Fry in Marseilles. She knew very well who was being murdered - and what. Rare qualities: how many know who is being murdered, and what, in Yemen at the moment?
Her memory of the "contribution" of Jews to the culture of the "West" - in the suspect nomenclature of the time - was a new notion of freedom, from the point of view of the Pariah. In order to sketch this out, she creates four portrait-moments in the essay: the first on Heine, the second Bernard Lazare, the defender of Dreyfus, the third Kafka, and the fourth, Chaplin (who Arendt takes to be Jewish). Through Heine, she clarifies her thesis:
" It is from this shifting of the accent, from this vehement protest on the part of the pariah, from this attitude of denying the reality of the social order and of confronting it, instead, with a higher reality, that Heine's spirit of mockery really stems. It is this too which makes his scorn so pointed. Because he gauges things so consistently by the criterion of what is really and manifestly natural, he is able at once to detect the weak spot in his opponent's armour, the vulnerable point in any particular stupidity which he happens to be exposing. And it is this aloofness of the pariah from all the works of man that Heine regards as the essence of freedom. It is this aloofness that accounts for the divine laughter and the absence of bitterness in his verses. He was the first Jew to whom freedom meant more than mere "liberation from the house of bond age" and in whom it was combined, in equal measure, with the traditional Jewish passion for justice."
The pariah figure has, of course, been wrestled with since the Holocaust and the founding of Israel, and generally found wanting and contemptible. After all, didn't Heine's pariah type take the fight out of people who went like "sheep" to the camps? This is, of course, to substitute a fantasy of muscled resistance in place of reality, which consists of the need for so many calories per day, for air, for time to organize, etc. Modern life would stop if humans were not trained up to be sheeplike in almost all things. If you set your clock so as to get up to get to work on time, you have just contributed, a tiny bit, to your own exterminatability, if authority takes that turn. Resistance, which has become a comedy word in the U.S. meaning twittering for Clinton or something, is one of the hardest things to do in the world, because it takes away all of the struts and props that make life comfortable.
Philip Roth, in Portnoy's Complaint, makes a novel of the struggle between the pariah and the rejection of the pariah. I wonder what Arendt's reaction to Portnoy's Complaint was? For in that book, everything is laid out, and the pariah is definitely put through the paces. The alternative, meanwhile, is strength - strength as a virtue. 
Strength as a virtue - it is a proposition that has left innumerable corpses behind it. Aren't we fed up yet?
Bring back the pariah