Thursday, October 29, 2015

2 in this week's New Yorker: the Murder of Rabin & Svetlana Alexievich (Nobel Prize for Literature)

Tired but sleepless at 5:45 am this morning, I picked up one of the New Yorkers that accumulate on the side of my bed and read two articles. One, by Dexter Filkins, reviewed two recent books on Israel about the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, and confirmed the notion that Israel has become a moral monster. The country is increasingly in the thrall of its messianic Jewish extremists, who are deeply racist, Jewish supremacists, and murderous—the very values I abhor, and was trained in that attitude partially by my Jewish education, in which our historical pageant of victimization was often attributed to the insufficiently humanist values of our persecutors. Of course, these subtleties are now lost on the fearful, belligerent Jews who want to displace, expel and eliminate the indigenous population of Eretz Yisroel. The premise of the article is that Rabin’s political murder in 1995 actually foreclosed on a real if difficult possibility of peace. No one dares oppose the extremist settlers of the West Bank now, and the right-wing Netanyahu portrays himself nationally as a moderate, and internationally as one who holds these psychopaths (not his word) in check. It’s disgusting and shameful.

The other article in the same Oct. 26 issue, by Masha Gessen, was about Svetlana Alexievich, who recently won the Nobel Prize for literature for her series of books where she lets ordinary people tell their extraordinary stories, some of them almost unbearable, like the wives ministering to their husbands grotesquely dying of radiation poisoning after Chernobyl. Her commitment to truth and the huge effort she puts forth to create these narratives validate her as worthy of enduring fame, yet she is reviled in her own country, since she shatters myths that the totalitarian state so assiduously maintained, and which the masses of people became addicted to. Not the narrators of her books, however. Their personal reality was too overwhelming, and she does us the service of bringing them to us. It’s a revisionist oral history, of the kind that we seek when we read Howard Zinn, but in the words of the People themselves. Ironically, it was the project of the charlatan Joe Gould, whom Joseph Mitchell so eloquently wrote about in the pages of the New Yorker in 1964, 51 years ago, and which recently was made into a movie. The project was so seductive and Gould, a street person, so fetching and apparently convincing, that he had people like Faulkner endorsing him. Mitchell was fascinated too, but in the end he exposes Gould as a mountebank—there was no oral history of America; he hadn’t done the work, just imagined it, and his boxes of scraps of notes were virtually worthless.

Of course, we have The New Yorker and Harper’s, which give us piecemeal something like the ongoing people’s history of this country and elsewhere, a welcome service in an open society. Alexievich has performed the immensely more difficult task of compiling individual narratives around particular subjects (WWII, love and dying, in addition to Chernobyl) in cultures (that of Belorus and Russia) that have suffered from a state-imposed mythology where the population grosso modo has been forcefully deprived of their inner lives. She seeks to restore this to them via her non-fiction books, and they for the most part resist. Meanwhile, she is recognized in the West, where the commercial media culture is given the task to distract us from our deeper selves and from the hidden truths of our time, and where it succeeds broadly enough to keep the power structure just beyond threat (this is not completely certain), but where—we can be grateful—a culture exists in art and journalism that nurtures it. Alexievich deserves every accolade she receives here, where, proud of our openness, we welcome her. But we also need to acknowledge at the same time the pervasive forces that banalize discourse and separate us from our deeper selves.