Under the kind of Occupation that Palestinians have been for decades there is literally no room for manoeuvre, very few forms of resistance. A new P.A. law banning the sale of Settlement produce -and Palestinians to work in the Settlements by 2011- is a difficult yet undeniable achievement. The difficulty is that working within these illegal zones [42% of the ‘west bank’ and rising] has been a scarce source of income for those imprisoned in the Palestinian hills.
There are many things wrong with the P.A., here is one thing they’ve got right. My own recent realisation that most of what is possible to eat in occupied Palestine is prison food -controlled/supplied by the Occupation- was mortifying and underscores why this ban is a difficult one to make and sustain. Outside occupied Palestine, it’s the easiest thing in the world to boycott the fruits of this uniquely chronic and brutal Occupation. It’s dead simple; do you want to be sustained by crimes against your -or your children’s- own humanity?
Slavoj Zizek London 1998 [photo Mykel Nicolaou]
I first met Slavoj Zizek in Bloomsbury in 1998 to conduct a relaxedly spontaneous, short but full-blooded interview in what I was to discover is the authentic Zizekian mode. I knew his work, had seen him speak, admired his reworking of various Idealists more than the brilliant-but-familiar bug-eyed film theorist and, armed only with a dodgy autobiographical preface, wondered about who he was. I’ve just found the 22,000 word transcript of that first meeting. Afterwards we wandered through Georgian Squares in the University quarter and he graciously accompanied me as far as possible whilst exchanging gossip eagerly, before cutting back to a meeting.
That initial meeting was something of a rehearsal for a plan for me to go to Ljubljana -before easyjet!- to spend a week doing a series of focused interviews. Whilst in that memorably lively city, Zizek would introduce me to key figures from Slovenia’s recent underground; activists, politicos, Laibach, Mladen Dolar and the Lacanian gang, etc. Those sessions produced 14 hours of tape containing dense and agile theorising, but the generous backers of my trip bottled out of publishing the resulting coup [editor had been ‘moved on’, their ‘reliable’ stand-in quoted Bertrand Russell approvingly, as in ‘the only thing I know about Hegel is what Bertrand Russell said…” Weep] -as was always an open possibility. A possibility that had liberated me to do it fully and properly.
Thereafter, there were some telephone conversations and emails and Zizek sent me his “Kosovo 4.99” piece on the double bind of supporting exceptionally belated foreign intervention to stop Serbian fascism’s campaign of ethnic cleansing; Against the Double Blackmail. A phrase from a clarifying phone call I made to him went in to the first substantial piece published on him in a UK journal [below] around publication of The Ticklish Subject and The Zizek Reader in 1999.
The so-called “Kosovo 4.99” text Zizek sent me was then staged as an exhibition of wall-texts [with a pirate radio installation by Gregory Green] at Cubitt Gallery and as an insert in the pages of Third Text magazine. I came across the original email to me with that ‘lost’ interview transcript. At the time I asked Cubitt to remove the note from SZ with thanks to me from their website because I was embarrassed! Somehow, they took the whole text down instead. After all this time, I’m linking to a pdf of it below with no shame at all.
I was wrong to describe it [earlier] as out of print, since it’s available in the US from Lynne Rienner Publishers here. LRP do have a London office too; the two Kanafani books I link to below are available from their UK distributors here. [I’m correcting my original post which criticised the lack of an equivalent British publisher. Does it matter in our cowardly new world? I think it does actually, yes.]
Men in the Sun [Rijal fi-al-shams [1962/3] was one of the first books by a Palestinian writer I read; entry point, beginning. I admired it first time up but wasn’t able to get a real hold on it or place it in a wider [Palestinian] literature.
I expect that this is a common experience in general, although if Mourid Barghouti‘s classic memoir I Saw Ramallah is a similar entry point for many today -as anecdotal experience suggests- the effect will also differ. MB’s book is more self-contained in this sense, its brilliant opening chapter The Bridge carries the voice of these men in the sun [amongst many others and much else] back home. Readers familiar with both will, I hope, forgive the purposive crudity of such an analogy.
I re-read Men in the Sun recently in a slim and very simply produced Heinemann/Three Continents Press edition [it first arrived in English in American University of Cairo Press, AUC, whose excellent back- and ongoing list is emerging through the wonderful Arabia Books in the UK] I was almost shocked by just how good it is; beautifully spare prose, precise and haunting altogether and, so far as I can tell, very well translated by Hilary Kilpatrick.
So why did I have to rely on the British Library to read it? I ask the question still even though my persisting with it did elicit a link to its blameless distributor in London through its entirely admirable publisher based in Boulder, Colorado. I leave it to you to decide or tell me whether it makes any difference…
This is an audio of Richard Hamilton’s talk, currently up on the Serpentine Gallery’s site. I’ve made extensive notes of what is newest in it below, which concentrates on previously unexhibited work towards the end of the talk. Most of the 119 minutes here is RH himself; beginning at 11 mins in and ending at 87 mins after which is a short discussion with Hans-Ulrich Obrist. The audio ends at 109 mins in fact.
Much of what he says about individual pieces through his career he has said before in interviews recently republished in Richard Hamilton October Files 10, for example. However, even if you know those well it’s different, of course, to hear how he talks about the word pop and his emphases, hesitations, digressions in general. Especially interesting is what he has to say about Palestinian dispossession and the work it has generated.
RH starts by saying he wants “to give you some impression of what my work is about” beyond the political works at the Serpentine show. So he begins with the “cool fifties”;
Hers is a lush situation . “So much was happening at that time … I was fascinated in the uncertainty principle for example … influence I felt most was that it was not a good idea to get involved in value judgments …“
Hal Foster is, as ever, good on the transition from “the “tabular” pictures in the late 1950s. This suite of paintings, still too little known, explores the emergent visual idioms of postwar consumer society … in a mode of suave pastiche…
In subsequent work by Hamilton, this satirical edge subsides, yet a political dimension persists. It is often subtle, however, because Hamilton is concerned to capture less the political event than its mediation -how it is produced for us precisely as an image- and it is this mediation that he both elaborates and exposes.” [my emphasis]
Elias Khoury’s Yalo was one of my stones stepped in 2009 [see Categories] and it’s on the long-list for The Independent’s Foreign Fiction Prize, announced here. Competition is stiff, needless to say, but I hope it wins.
I posted a link to the interview-based piece I did around the seminal publication in English of Bab-al shams [Gate Of the Sun] in 2005 -the first of its kind in English- and now post it below. Gate of the Sun is a monumental work of fiction; a brilliant creative achievement which is both important and highly accessible. That is, it’s so compelling that there’s no excuse for not realising the necessity of reading it.
In the US Archipelago Books is promising two new Khoury titles; a novel called White Masks in 2010 and another novel As Though She Were Sleeping in 2011. There are already two more works of fiction published in the US by university presses. I’m looking forward to the day when his critical writing becomes available to the English-speaking world.
Wherever you start with Khoury [an earlier novel, Little Mountain Collins Harvill 1990 is out of print] you’ll be hungry for more.
Elias Khoury: Myth and memory in the Middle East
Lebanese writer Elias Khoury is one of the leading lights of Arab literature. Guy Mannes-Abbott meets him
Friday, 18 November 2005
Elias Khoury is the kind of writer who wins the Nobel Prize for literature to sneers from the English-speaking world. When the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz was greeted in this way in 1989, the late scholar and activist Edward Said remarked sagely that “Arabic is by far the least known and the most grudgingly regarded” of major world literatures. At the same time, Said pointed to the future, celebrating the promising achievements of Khoury – a “brilliant figure” – and Mahmoud Darwish: a Lebanese and a Palestinian writer respectively.
The word “brilliant” is etched across Khoury’s new novel, Gate of the Sun (Harvill Secker, £17.99) and on my mind when we meet in London for lunch. His reputation as a novelist, critic, commentator, editor and academic with real political commitment is formidable. Khoury came to prominence in Lebanon – and therefore the Arab world – in the mid-1970s. Still in his twenties, he was working in the Palestine Research Centre, editing the literary pages of its journal and writing his second novel, Little Mountain, which re-worked his experiences in the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990 almost as they happened.
“It’s meaningless!” he thunders, when I ask him what it means to be Lebanese. Then, speaking rapidly, he develops a characteristic response which ends with a modified repetition of the phrase. In between, he sketches a history of Lebanon’s many civil wars since the 19th century, describes similarities in dialect and cuisine between Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, and asserts that “I feel more Beiruti. If you are a Beiruti, you are an Arab. You are open to all types of cultures, and to innovating in the Arabic culture at the same time. You are in the Lebanese dilemmas and you are so near to Palestine”. So you feel “that the Palestinian tragedy is part of your life.”
By this he means sheer physical proximity – “It’s a matter of 100 kilometres” – but also that he has grown up with the Palestinian refugees who arrived in 1948, the year of his birth. All of this is the subject of the epic Gate of the Sun, which has already been cheered in Arabic, Hebrew and French editions during the seven years it took to arrive in this elegant English translation by Humphrey Davies.
Gate of the Sun, or Bab El Shams, is an attempt to render the Palestinian nakba – or “catastrophe” – of 1948 and its tortuous aftermath. Specifically, it contains the stories and lives of people whose ancestral villages in Galilee, now in northern Israel, were “wiped out of existence”, forcing them into desperate flight by land and sea to Lebanon.
“Actually,” says Khoury, “I was writing a story about Galilee, because it’s in-between” and home to many Palestinian writers, including Darwish. “I was not writing a history of Palestine. Of course, many ask why it was a Lebanese not a Palestinian who wrote this story. I really don’t know. What I know is from the experience of the Palestinians I worked with,” he explains.
The nakba of 1948 was “a shame, a total defeat; it’s a disaster, a real personal disaster. There are stories here about the woman who left her child, about a woman who killed her child. So it’s not easy to talk about. The Palestinians did not realise, and if they realised they did not believe that this could happen, because actually this is something unbelievable.”
Khoury had the initial impulse to turn stories he heard in refugee camps into a memorial narrative in the 1970s. He spent much of the 1980s gathering “thousands of stories” before writing this extraordinarily accomplished novel. Gate of the Sun is essentially a love story set in a world turned upside down. It involves a dying fighter called Yunis and his wife Naheeleh, an internal refugee in Galilee, whose relationship forms during stolen visits across the border to a cave renamed Bab El Shams. The cave is “a house, and a village, and a country”, and “the only bit of Palestinian territory that’s been liberated”. It produces a “secret nation”: a family of seven children who have borne four more Yunises by the end of the book.
However, this is no parable. For Khoury, “Yunis, of course, is a hero. He used to go to Galilee, he used to cross the borders… but in the end we discover that he was nothing, that Naheeleh was this whole story; her relationship with the children, and how she actually defended life. In the refugee camps I met hundreds of women like Naheeleh. Then it’s no more a metaphor. It’s very realistic.”
This reality is the “revolution of actual work carried out by our mothers”, which the poet Mourid Barghouti articulates so well in his memoir I Saw Ramallah. It is “realised every day, without fuss and without theorising”.
Khoury’s story of love and survival is told by Khaleel, an untrained “doctor” at a redundant hospital in Shatila refugee camp. Shatila was the site of a notorious massacre in 1982, overseen by an Israeli army commanded by Ariel Sharon. During the months that Khaleel attends to Yunis’s lifeless body, he stitches together his honorary father’s stories in order to bring him out of coma. Gradually, Khaleel’s own story emerges: of his love for a female fighter called Shams, and his experience of the camp massacre.
If this evokes the Thousand and One Nights, in which Scheherazade tells stories to keep herself alive, it’s the structure and act of telling that are important. Edward Said praised Khoury’s innovations in Little Mountain and the author takes the compliment, but says that “when I came to write Little Mountain, I discovered that real experimentation is not intellectual”. Instead, you have to “go deep to your own experience”.
In 1967, aged 19, Khoury travelled alone to Amman to join the Palestinian resistance after Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza. In 1970 he finished his studies in Paris before writing his fictional debut, a nouveau roman. In 1975 he fought for revolutionary change in Lebanon, his disillusionment captured elegantly by Little Mountain. These years involved “a very deep engagement about what is justice, what is a human being and what is life”.
It is this experimenting with life, combined with such testing experience of it, that makes his writing less “experimental” in the literary sense than naturalistic. Crucially, he developed a faith in oral narratives; encompassing both the colloquial forms used in telling a story, and the non-classical type of Arabic that such stories are told in. “I don’t think there is any story we live from the beginning to the end,” he says. In this novel, “the structure is oral telling – openness. That is, you begin a story, you enter another story, and then you come back”.
In the novel, Khaleel complains about fugitive “snatches” of story that he’s struggling to remember and narrate. He blames the influence of tarab, the ecstasy generated by the rhythms of Arabic music and – by extension – poetry for the sidelining of descriptive skills. Khoury elaborates: “It’s repetitive, but every time you repeat, you change. Also in prose you create music, repeating the same story three, four, five times, and every time it’s a very slight difference. This is the Thousand and One Nights, this is the musicality of the oral and this is tarab.”
One of the results is that it produces “suspense from a totally different perspective. If you want to know what will happen to Yunis, he will die, so close the book and go home; but it’s another type of suspense.” It is this rhythmic accumulation of story that makes Gate of the Sun so unexpectedly compelling. It’s also this democratic form of telling which has enabled Khoury to approach the subject; to piece together fragments into a masterfully executed novel. The resulting mosaic of suggestive truths complicates any simple metaphorical reading while returning over and over again to discrete realities.
“Reality,” he summarises, “can become metaphor or a myth. But a myth, if it will become a reality, it’s the most savage thing in the world. The Israeli project is to make a myth into reality. This is the problem.”
Khoury’s iteration of inconvenient realities is rigorously ethical. It is there in his responsibility towards Jewish history as well as to Palestinian dispossession, and in his novel’s investigation of love’s work. It informs his efforts to modernise Arabic by means of colloquial speech, and his commitment to grassroots democratic movements in Lebanon and Syria.
Khoury’s experience of life has generated a sophisticated optimism. He takes the long view, having resettled in the ancestral home in Beirut from which he was driven in the 1970s. He is both worldly and warm, a man of heart as well as passionate intellect. Nothing is off-limits and he answers every question fully even though we have, literally, eaten into preparation time for an evening reading. Before parting, though, I must ask the author of Gate of the Sun about the theory that “to narrate is to return”.
“No, I think that to narrate is to reconstruct, to appropriate but,” he breaks into a story from one of his novels before resuming, “one of the biggest, er, pleasures of the Palestinians was to regain your name, to be Palestinians. And once you regain your name – and I think this is narration, to regain the name – then you prepare yourself to go: that is, to create a Palestine, not to return to a Palestine which was.” These paradoxes and “pleasures” find potent resolution in Gate of the Sun. It’s a novel that will outlive us.
Biography: Elias Khoury
Elias Khoury was born in Lebanon in 1948, to an Orthodox Christian family in the East Beirut district known as Little Mountain. As a sociology undergraduate, he volunteered for Fatah, the military wing of the Palestinian revolution. During the 1970s he worked in PLO organisations in Beirut, and helped found the journal al-Karmel with the poet Mahmoud Darwish. He speaks Arabic, French, English, Syriac and “a little Hebrew”. Author of 11 novels, four non-fiction books and three plays, he also scripted a film of Gate of the Sun. The novel is published by Harvill Secker this month. Khoury is now an editor with the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar and Global Distinguished Professor at New York University. He lives with his wife in his great-grandfather’s house on Little Mountain.
while baroda burns
by Guy Mannes-Abbott
In 2004 TANK reprinted extracts from my extensive notebooks on Gujarat in western India. They’re taken from the days of “mass massacres” when I was locked up under curfew in my room on the 4th floor of a hotel, forbidden to leave the building or even to go as low as the 1st floor.
The whole story of witnessing state-sponsored pogroms while trapped with Bhupen Khakhar in his car on the outskirts of Gujarat’s second city and its various contexts form part of my forthcoming book A Gram of Gujarat. A part, but only a part. A part along with many other equally vivid, penetrating and suggestive parts! Taken together they provide a unique insight into Gujarat and contemporary India which enables a proper grasp of these signal events.
These particular extracts reflect something of the raw experience of being trapped in a room [tall building, complicit city and bone-shaking witness] looking out of a window onto a building usually only ever animated by women. I watched discretely as the traditional rhythms of everyday life went on in an abstracted way. Above rose black impressions of the terror being inflicted on Baroda’s old city; common, abstract again [literally framed by my window] but presumably at least as intense as those I’d been caught in. Otherwise; silence.
After two or three days it occurred to me to take photographs [some of which are poorly repro’d here], as the oddity of life in the building and the realisation that the smoky evidence was likely to stop if or when the army eventually took control of the city dawned. Obviously I was as visible as the people opposite and didn’t want to impose on them, so each image was snatched and for me condenses hours of the life it captures. Similarly, I only took one image of the smoke at the end and with confused reluctance; a feeble effort all around.
The politicians and authorities responsible for the massacres believe that the subcontinent is both Fatherland and Holyland; that the very dust is bound up forever with the dharma/spirit of each and every Hindu. Hindutva is a terrifying ideology, drawn from European fascism and Nazism specifically and these “mass massacres” a direct and logical result of it. Followers believe that a Hindu never loses their dharma and so India’s 150 million Muslims must recover theirs and renounce Islam -or they can ‘leave’.
Press PDFS to Enlarge
This is the same India that has a secular constitution and which was once the proud centre of the Non-Alignment movement but which has never reconciled itself fully with several centuries of Islamic dominance and conquest. Not even though a consequently rich Islamic heritage forms just one part of the subcontinent’s definitively syncretic culture. This is part of the specificity of hindutva, and why it’s worth reading VD Savarkar on the subject and understanding what there is of substance beyond the shudderingly crude race hatred that so corrupted his mind and thought.
The same India where some of the nicest people I met, seasoned secularists of various stripes, were the most complacent/deluded about the pressing actuality. It’s distressing to listen to someone making fun of their own Muslim upbringing, poo-pooing any intimacy with Islam or its wider culture, laughing at the notion that they would have any insight into such a subject when their own work, memoirs and even academic cv contradicts them. Frustrating when the point is simple; ‘they’ perceive you to be Muslim whatever your self-image. This is the nature of racism, fascism and lest we forget Nazism specifically.
Any conversation of that kind contains the unmistakable presumption that as a Foreigner I can’t possibly understand. It’s all a very complex, internal affair and only one of us can really appreciate it. In such instances they were clearly mistaken. In one exemplary case, when politely listening to an excited account of brief passage through a ‘secret’ outpost on the edge of the Rann of Kutch, I kept to myself the knowledge that I’d ridden out to the same particular outpost four times, found a floor to stay on inside its walls, a cave to sleep in beyond them.
Such an intense, ‘deep’ encounter with place and people was the yardstick I developed , which is why I was able to contextualize just how much or little right-minded, out of touch secularists of this kind understood about their neighbours [and to contextualise their insulting and short-sighted presumptions]. It’s for this reason that what happened to that particular individual and to other Muslims [religious or otherwise] across the State was profoundly shocking to me, but not a surprise. This is why it all made a horrible kind of ‘sense’.
Whilst ‘Metro’ secularists disown, deny and delude themselves about what “mass massacres” meant for India, I’d been encountering it in mud and urban kitchens, chai stops in deserts and forests, main roads, side streets and camel tracks, mandirs, dharamsalas and masjids, chellahs, tirths and tuks, Bohra wads, mohallas/pols and Societies, forts, havelis, universities and cool alleyways across the state. I listened to barots and charans, dalits and Brahmins, shia and sunni, professors and ‘local’ historians, ram sewaks and their Big Men financiers, MPs and MLAs, victims and perpetrators, writers and architects. I’d witnessed what it meant for months before this discreet horror and for months afterwards.
Understanding requires a real engagement with a wide range of things, places, peoples and times. It requires the articulation of distinct and interrelated elements in an authoritative portrait of a people and their place. Such a portrait would enable understanding of these particular events but also a much wider context. If it succeeded it would reveal the interiors of Gujarat as a whole and provide a unique insight into subcontinental India. This is what I’ve attempted to do with A Gram of Gujarat.
I want to write something simple, direct and therefore probably clumsy about what is going on when established art critics ignore and/or get snippy about a piece like Richard Hamilton‘s bold, brave and irreducible [this is the rub of course] work; Maps of Palestine.
Recognising the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and subsequent six decades of uniquely chronic entrenchment, overt war crimes slash crimes against humanity [oh those yada yada], ever more settlements and greater delusional sanctimony is forbidden in public discourse in Britain. Hence my ‘clumsiness’; you’ll need an open or well-informed mind to read on while I stumble through the ‘unsayable’.
It’s forbidden -or ‘unsayable’- partly because establishment Britain continues to offer cover as well as arms to the brave pre-pre-emptive killers of uniquely dispossessed, starved, besieged, picked off, randomly bombed, endlessly redisplaced and remassacred Palestinians, but also because it looked the other way for so long during a genocide much closer to home.
Maps of Palestine  Richard Hamilton [w. thanks Eyal Weizman]
RH’s monumental maps are heart stopping; their allusions more shocking than anything that Koons and the Gang can muster. Art critical consensus mutters divertingly that it’s not really art is it? and if it is, it’s not really any good, is it? And, oh aren’t we a bit bored of this? They can’t say that about Unorthodox Rendition because it resonates visually with the equally ambiguous, uncannily similar, iconic image of Jagger and Fraser, Swingeing London 67, which is secure in art history, but Maps is fair game, it’s easy…
Easy to ignore or disparage; bad politics and/or bad art. One of its actual characteristics is ‘simply’ political; the fact that it is a bald rendering of two maps of Palestine which make it evident that Palestinians have been cleansed from their homes and land and are now confined to tiny littering ‘camps’ [in Agamben’s sense, yes, but not exclusively here]. There is no disputing possible, no interpretation; this is simply the case. Which is why it’s not art, innit? That is; ideologically blinded by a perception that it’s ‘simply’ political, they can’t see anything else.
I want to say something about the way in which it is art in definitive ways and how its potent ambiguity as an object also makes it strikingly good, or anyway, lasting, art. It crystallises something unseen/unrecognised about the present which will resonate/fascinate in the future when ‘we’ will see better and with unerring perspective. In order to make that point carefully and probably clumsily I want to tell you another true story about Palestinian dispossession with covert establishment support.
The first time I actually met Mourid Barghouti, the great Palestinian poet and memoirist, was at a writer’s event in Norwich in 2005. These kinds of things; lots of writers from all over the place brought together for a ‘productive’ exchange, are often dire but this was not, I think. However, there was a round-table event that was profoundly degrading as well as terrifying in its way. A writer called AB Yehoshua was present, a man whose work is credibly literary, presumably the work of an agile albeit conservative mind. I don’t say this in the corruptingly ‘even-handed’ way that has so glossed Palestinian dispossession, but because I had positive expectations of him.
At one session, Mourid spoke very precisely about his own displacement and of place itself with a minimum of nomination, though of course when you tell the truth, even glancingly, it’s likely to hurt someone. He was calmly precise in mentioning some facts and asking open albeit suggestive questions. It was scrupulously exact and even respectfully polite; therefore very potent. For those who knew the background in depth it was clear that merely being allowed to stand there and say anything as a Palestinian was a mould-breaking, radical fact in itself.
[Actually, you can judge my memory because Mourid’s paper Place as Time is online here and, in fact, pertains to what I’m trying to say here more broadly than I remembered]
When it came to Yehoshua, the tank-like figure that had barged and roared into the room morphed all-too easily into the Sharon-like Commander of US-supplied artillery. Spotting a Palestinian he opened fire with all he had to hand, no questions asked, perfect immunity assured and, however often this happens in actuality, it was extremely shocking to witness. His blind rage, I mean in particular, and boy did he bluster and wow was it obvious that this is how it goes. He objected to something that all present knew to be the case; a recent example of Palestinian women being forced to give birth at illegal checkpoints erected on occupied territories held against International law [and more profound things] for decades.
The mere mention of this incontrovertible fact as an open question sent Yehoshua off into a reflex torrent of incoherent, self-defeating abuse in which he sought to say in essence; well if you weren’t intent on murdering lil’ ‘ol me I wouldn’t have to do it … if only you could grasp the relentless responsibility-taking that I do each and every day… but what would you know about that?
Somewhere in his rage he was complaining about the responsibility of the artist for what they say and/or do. The obscenity of his violent outburst centred on his abuse of the most responsible of poets who had just given a very precise and elegant paper which exemplified the burden of artistic responsibility to perfection. Yehoshua meanwhile, abused his presence, his voices volume, the complicity of the British establishment, and raged on irresponsibly, not only refusing to take any responsibility for actual ongoing crimes, but abandoning any claim of artistic writerly responsibility in any and every conceivable way [and yes, I raise that to the highest, broadest of ethical categories].
His behaviour was obscene and cowardly; safe in the knowledge that he was squatting on a tank. It was terrifying because it revealed an entirely warped mindset, deeply entrenched in mass violence and practised impunity. At home his tank contains missiles. After missiles. After missiles. Here, his words were unleashed with the same intention; to kill the poet, the Palestinian, the other and any substantive sense of responsibility in art or elsewhere. What was shocking, indeed terrifying, was the knowledge that this small incident is played out endlessly, on a much greater scale, with blood and families and farmland and has been for more than six decades.
Almost more shocking was that the Chair made no sign of complaint, didn’t even notice anything unusual. It wasn’t that he felt awkward about how to rein in the verbal violence and lack of elemental human decency but that he was [I’m being kind] so immured to the established British discourse that he didn’t think there was anything even slightly odd about the outburst.
Art critics querying/ignoring Hamilton’s particular piece are not the Yehoshua in the story so much as the Chair; doing the work of casual complicity, blind to what is before them, ignorant of the artful potency of facts or the potency of facts used artfully.
The point about Hamilton’s piece of work is that it shows two separate realities -one potential and one actual- and makes no attempt to force meaning between them. No pointing, telling, explicating, merely the erection of two objects in space and time alongside each other; all relations open, a deep elliptical hole -more mysterious than a slathered over Anish Kapoor- of perfect ambiguity. As a work of art this is as close to the essence of what it is as you can get without it needing to be the most brilliant piece of art ever made or seen. To question this as art is to cancel art as a category.
Think of poetry and how it’s essence lies in Agamben’s reworked classicism; the enjambement of sound and meaning. Without the non identity of metre and sense text is not poetry at all; it only emerges as poetry in the very ellipsis formed [and is otherwise ‘mere’ prose] [See my Introduction to MB’s Midnight & Other Poems]. Similarly, it is the openness of the relationship between images [as well as viewer/s] here that makes it art.
One response to it is indeed simple, factual and unchallengeable; it is a map of ethnic cleansing yes, every bit as rigidly horrifying as aerial photographs of the infrastructure of death camps in the early mid-1940s [or that of settlements in the late 20th and early 21st century]. Infrastructure which, as here, war machines flew over without blinking, noticing, taking any responsibility for. ‘Camps’ which suit a purpose, a game ‘larger’ than the facts of chronic ethnic cleansing on the occupied ground.
A work of art, like a poem, that reminds me or exists only in this most elemental threshold zone is a blessing to receive. Before you tell me -or yourself- that this is not art or that it’s bad art, or that it’s ‘message’ is not very successfully conveyed, sit down and articulate to yourself what the relationship is between these two objects or images and then what the relationship is between them or that and you as a viewer. You might have to talk very precisely in general, and especially around how you distinguish the form that these two objects take from, say, two naked human figures stood in marble alongside each other. Why is that art? Why is that not bad art? Are you beginning to get it?
In fact this particular piece is not only a purified form of art, it is also fantastically humble and/or profoundly ethical art-making; an act undertaken for the other and otherness in its widest sense. I’m tempted to equate the refusing of it [the refusing to see or acknowledge it as art] with if not a crime but arguably an act against humanity.
I’m reminded of the sophistry that Emmanuel Levinas betrayed in an important and fascinating exchange in the immediate aftermath of the massacres at Sabra and Chatila, when a profound ethical response from a position of strength [the head of state responsible for those particular massacres said ‘No-one can teach us anything about morals’; an approach adhered to across the end of the century and beyond] might have helped [see; The Levinas Reader, ed. Sean Hand pp 289-297 Blackwell Oxford 1989]. If he misrepresented himself in the friendly context of the exchange, then it too was an ethical failure, surely?
Here is the contemporary face of ethical art making [with all its responsible innocence]. Today it is what it is, one day it will have extraordinary potency as a cultural object, a work of art. This image is only possible now; it is today writ large, in all its stark horror and misrecognition. Tomorrow it will seem inconceivable, impossible, absolutely mysterious. Tomorrow no-one will casually dismiss its status or its efficacy as art.
Tomorrow all those smugly complicit commentators will be eager defenders of the importance of memorialising the Nakba; the most committed to never again allowing humanity to descend to such depravity for so extended a period; the most insistent on the uniqueness of this horror, resistant of diluting comparisons to any other. But not until tomorrow.
Hamilton’s show contains a number of contemporary icons, stretching across the years and building potency in the present. With the new work, shockingly radical because so little else is, the show could almost just as well be called This is Tomorrow, but then that sounds strangely familiar…
I’m New Here is a great one; not just a new one but a riverrunning reconnection with the cool and conscious coming poet. Music stripped back to and built from words, no over-production of the moment [80s reggae sauce] but yet a 110 st 70s flavour. One which vies with all and everything before.
There’s the broken home of 125th and Lenox and ‘B-Movie’ ghetto get outs, a fine version of ‘I’ll Take Care of You’, which Mark Lanegan ‘owns’ as far as I’m concerned, even the title track’s perfectly tempered cover of a Bill Callahan song [if only it were ‘Dress Sexy at My Funeral’ -but heh?].
I don’t know about you, but I had all that right bang mid-horizon… Anyway, this is good but no longer hot news.
Then I noticed this:
A ‘secret’ collection of Angus [Fairhurst]’s very earliest work from the 1970s! I’d never realised it before, nor asked him about it… Peace go with you brother, from now on.
From South Africa to South Carolina here includes ‘Johannesburg’ on it -amongst a range of gotta move on lovely days. For the first time I actually read the lyrics, heard often in the open-air and in tighter, warmer corners, Clapham Common [was it?!] to Portobello Road, being earnest, not being earnest:
I know that their strugglin’ over there
ain’t gonna free me,
but we all need to be strugglin’
if we’re gonna be free
Don’t you wanna be free?
One long day boycotts are laughed at, rejected, not noticed and seem peculiarly futile, the next day every one is suddenly on their weeping knees, wearing the t-shirt for a TV special.
‘Soft water vanquishes the mighty stone’; cup hands, pour!
Susan Sontag‘s brand of earnest enthusiasm is completely redundant, right? The idea that you might live with a body of work [ha!] -especially written work [ha! ha!]- for a long time and then find a way to articulate what it means to you and perhaps us/we too is obviously ridiculous. Isn’t it?
I don’t think these things stand or fall around Sontag and I don’t think that it’s any easier to do the work of exception now; to stand back, up or out enough to be willing and able to celebrate, polemicise, passionately engage, act commitedly, work with words, difficult though they ought to be. No easier, no harder, no more necessary. No less.
Sontag is not the tool or resource I reach for either; she was historicised/historical, boringly everywhere and thus to be avoided as well as out of sync with some of what she was celebrating when I first encountered her ‘great’ essays on the ‘great’. I didn’t start with Sontag, but if you did, my only question was where you went afterwards? -because you did go ‘on’, no?
Then there are all the obvious ways in which she does incarnate American culture’s definitive civilisational moment, which I’m not going to call by any name or term, but which she surfed and was flooded with. Commodity/celebrity. You know, if you endlessly tell everyone every day that you are greatly detained with greatness, difficulty and authority, the wise will only listen awry. If you do it in the literally shiny pages of Vanity Fair, the wise become a little deaf. And yet. Flooded and surfing means that it is not contradictory. It is what it is.
So, I tried to critique Sontag’s In America honestly and for what it’s worth this little review called it right. I don’t mean to be dismissive, though, which is partly why I’m re-archiving it here and now. Nor do I mean to be seen to be right! [agents on the Estate Express don’t make ‘right’ either, nor my critique wrong, obviously.] Sontag’s novel may well be so bad in a way that it exemplifies the badness that is also its subject; American commodity/celebrity, in a perfectly condensed single volume.
Sontag worshipped books as possessions, brains as fetishes, writers and thinkers as gods/goddesses. There are admirable aspirations in there, residue beyond the packaging. All I can now recall about her going to Sarajevo and putting on Waiting for Godot in the late stages of a brutal siege is that she did it. It’s irreducible. While western powers contorted themselves to look the other way for year after year and so-called radicals corrupted themselves to ignore the mass murder of Bosnian Muslims before the world, she was there. She was there, being there, doing being there. I don’t care exactly why, or exactly what measurable impact it made, but I note that she went, stayed, knew what it was like. Just another person, not just another person.
There is something similar about the way her critical writing could work; the breathless intensity of baptismal enthusiasm for a book or a writer felt convincing [or not] while reading, generated an appetite for her object or a sugary rush and desire for more Sontag. It’s true that nothing of hers materially altered or even impacted on [made Sontagian] its object or my lasting understanding of it. Rather it enacted Sontag’s urgent appetite for it [of course], was a convincing herald for the work, took it so seriously that it could butterfly it all over again. The residue is urgency and appetite.
I was caught up by this when reading one of her last pieces; Loving Dostoevsky, in At The Same Time 2007. It recounts her accidental discovery of Leonid Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden and in essence her passionate admiration for the book [as well as “the incomparable” Dostoevsky, a sentiment I claim as my own]. I don’t want to say anything about Tsypkin, his book, or her critique, only to recall how affective her voice was within the first and last line of her piece. It excited me, I panicked about what else I didn’t know, whether I knew the author or not who now sounded so different, relished the sheer thrill of it all -as she presented it- and felt more alive and clarified in all I thought during those minutes of reading.
It’s easy to sneer about Godot resistance in Sarajevo -even if raised to the challenge of Camp Gaza today- easy to sneer about bursts of enthusiasm and gushing celebration of [dead] writers. Is anything much easier than such a sneer? In fact, it’s notably hard to articulate an agility of intellect or thirst in place of being merely academic and especially difficult to keep the words alive, generative.
The problem is legacy, or residue: if I can appreciate Sontag’s championing of under-recognised figures at one cultural moment, their subsequent ubiquity -or just belated recognition- belittles her effort. It’s forgotten/forgettable and, fatally, it’s polemical need to foreshorten makes it less critically robust after its assimilation too.
Did she know or realise this? Did she hope that the passion might out live the historicising correction? I know it isn’t that she didn’t care! Then again, it’s Calvino’s celebration of Fourier that lingers with me more than all the rest. Zizek’s introductory interpretation in English of Badiou too [yes!]. Then de Quincey’s short text on Kant is a tattoo of truth almost as lasting as Joseph Frank’s staggeringly good five volumes on Dostoevsky. Yet again, look at her perspectival acuity with regard to the Twin Towers and Abu Ghraib…
NB; Speaking of Dostoevsky and Frank, I missed the abridged version of his light-footed monument Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time, published by Princeton UP in December 2009. The publisher has a good page here, including contents and a pdf of the first chapter. There is an interview with 91 year old Frank here in which he says of Dostoevsky that “He poses questions in such a way that, whether you agree or not, it makes you think about them.”
Which reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s acute, urgently honest and revealing review of Frank’s Dostoevsky [orig. Feodor’s Guide VV 1996] in which the big questions asked by Dostoevsky of his world and of writing clearly formed a big brick in the wall that DFW must have hit at about that time*, finding himself perhaps on the wrong side of the only question/line that matters. Which reminds me, in contrast, of William Gaddis…
*It’s not online now, so I quote: “… we have abandoned the field … who is to blame for the philosophical passionlessness of our own Dostoevskys? The culture, the laughers? But they wouldn’t–could not–laugh if a piece of passionately serious ideological contemporary fiction was also ingenious and radiantly transcendent fiction. But how to do that–how even, for a writer, even a very talented writer, to get up the guts to even try?”
Famous for 35 years
In America by Susan Sontag (Jonathan Cape, £16.99, 387pp)
Saturday, 27 May 2000
As a literary brand the name, Sontag is a synonym for serious. So the phrase “Susan Sontag’s new book” is a promise of significance. The writer has long grown accustomed to a state of “perma-profile” involving, on the one hand, recent battles with her good conscience in Sarejevo and against traumatic injury, as well as a second brush with the cancer she famously defeated in the 1970s. On the other is the dubious realm of critical sanctification and the Vanity Fair puff.
Sontag, born in 1933, earned a reputation in her thirties with the essay collections Against Interpretation and Styles of Radical Will. Her writing influenced what we think about camp, photography and illness, and helped make icons of European men such as Barthes, Canetti, Artaud, and the saturnine Walter Benjamin. She has long been “the most intelligent woman in America”, and countless column inches have been spent on the miles of book-shelves that line her Manhattan apartment.
She returned to fiction in 1992 with a well-received historical romance, The Volcano Lover: a novel invested with the matured intellectual vigour that fuelled her reputation. It was a gamble, and it revealed a problem: not the predictable cynicism of the intellectual, but the way that Sontag’s profile precedes, envelopes and smothers her work. It does so in the sense not just that In America is “Susan Sontag’s new book”, but also by her presence, which is felt on almost every page – sometimes deliberately, but rarely appropriately.
In America is the story of an actress and her successes in her native Poland and adopted America. In between, Maryna Zalewska, with an entourage that includes her husband the Count and another close admirer, gives up acting to found a utopian community in California – a brief experience of failure. The novel is set during the 1870s and is “inspired by” a historical figure. The actual actress’s exhaustingly researched biography has spurred on Sontag’s fascination with artistic celebrity, which she treats as an American story.
Marina’s stage genius is unrivalled in America, and Sontag writes at devoted length about her Shakespearean cameos, her fizzing fame and its endorsements – from fans and of products. At the end of her previous novel, the volcano lover himself, Sir William Hamilton, was judged against Sontag’s criteria of originality, discipline, invention and zeal. Hamilton was found wanting, but these are Marina’s possessions. Sontag celebrates them with this novel about one woman’s specialness.
In America is a bold attempt to inhabit the experience of success. The problem is that Sontag is rarely able to animate the past or, in particular, her characters. Sontag is essentially a collector, the figure she has so often written about, and her novels are the product of fascinations. The result here is inventive non-fiction awkwardly parading as a novel. Sontag’s appetites, perspectives and exactitudes would sparkle in almost any other form.
In The Volcano Lover, Sontag produced a vivid portrait of late-18th-century Naples. Her fascination with Neapolitan society in the age of Nelson and Napoleon was so effective that it compensated for the absence of a pumping heart in her story of Nelson and Emma Hamilton’s love affair. For In America, the equivalent object of fascination is the actress’s mobile world of veils, feints and flaming egotism. When the book is over, this leaves almost no residue. Further, Sontag has attempted to re-jig the 19th-century novel, which must teem with life, but cannot sustain the required imaginative autonomy.
Marina wonders whether “she had used up the allotted number of impossible feats her will could make possible”. Sontag writes often and well of American “willing”, the knowledge “that I can triumph by sheer stubbornness, by applying myself harder than anyone else”. Which is laudable – until the rigid fruit of such stubborn labouring is before you.
So few writers will risk their intellectual ambitions in the form of a story now that it’s tempting to minimise the failings of this attempt. But Sontag, aiming for absolute achievements, deserves more than tempered praise. The way that In America re-stages the American dream speaks urgently to the present; combined with Sontag’s abilities, it could be a triumph. Yet it fails because of her limitations as a fictionaliser, as she proves unable to free her narrative voices from authorial echo and prod – and, dare I suggest, a blinding self-regard.
Copyright 2009 Independent News and Media Limited