February 22, 2007

Tortured Imaginary

Back in 1964, Graham Greene repeatedly saw American and British newspapers printing images of South Vietnamese torturing captured Vietcong. The images were not documentary evidence unearthed. They were taken at the behest of the torturers. Greene, who used his novelist's gift to pursue the gnawed heart of each matter, took note that the captions in the newspapers were descriptive but not marked by any condemnation; editorial approval of the demonstration that the enemy was not human. He wondered if such "honesty without conscience" should not make one prefer the older forms of hypocrisy. By 2007, the old tension between visibility and silence has developed into a more pronounced form of exposure as ideological advertising--vivid vindication of the worst impulses.

This week The New Yorker outlines how a histrionic television show ("24") represents torture in the hands of the righteous, where the pain inflicted is flaunted as the difficult task of the just. In fact, it seems to determine the essence of the righteous purpose itself. Repeatedly, routinely, necessarily disaster inflicted on bodies averts the detonation of the omnipresent "ticking time bomb." The audience is aligned with the torturer since those abused are always guilty (or when innocent, consenting to the process that they too accept as absolutely necessary). The slogan for this process: "everyone breaks eventually." And facts are left to puddle red on the floor.

The scandal in all this is not in the fictional renderings, whatever their politics or perverse appeal. An aesthetic of the tormented body is nothing new. The twisted and broken of medieval art continues along a dense spectrum, all the way to the present; and the eroticization of the torturer also remains a fascinating aspect of fascism, as Susan Sontag suggested.

Such images reverberate, however. According to a Dean at West Point, they are shifting the imaginary of soldiers in training. Many who enter the climate of the military bring with them a culture of torture in the name of the cause. They claim, with conviction, the very myths that would have, once before, betrayed and defined barbarity. They imagine themselves as protector and executioner of the tough decision. The conviction that they dwell and act on truth's side sanctifies the murderous acts and allows for wantonly adopting the ruthlessness that operates "without conscience."

In his novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, J. M. Coetzee writes of the ways power, pain, and paranoia orbit around Empire's nucleus, and its ever-changing dream of "peace." It is a novel about the drives and desire of torture. He puts the insidious words of justification into the mouths of the law-abiding torturers. The very real "pitch of human pain" for the witness is, for the blindly abusive Colonel of the novel, "the tone of truth." There can be no mistake where the failures of proper perception reside.

The perception, though, is of the cries from behind the barred door of the frontier granary where the "barbarians" are taken for their indoctrination to civilized discourse. Coetzee shows very little. Elsewhere he has written about the potential destructiveness of even imagining, in too much detail, such wretched things. It is our conscience, and his own, he is protecting. One must remain capable of flinching, of turning away, of condemning the unbearable. There must be respect for the forbiddenness of forbidden places. He has the authorial voice of Elizabeth Costello suggest that one risks a great deal if they decide to descend down into the torture's cellar, even as a witness.

The "witness" in Waiting for the Barbarians is an ambivalent colonial magistrate. In the wake of the torturing of a family at his outpost he is drawn--against his own impulses to maintain a peaceful state of mind--to the ghosts of those who emerged broken by their contact with the Empire's need for truth.

"Somewhere, always, a child is being beaten. I think of one who despite her age was still a child; who was brought in here and hurt before her father's eyes; who watched him being humiliated before her, and saw that he knew what she saw."

The absence of the details is what rightfully haunts. The truth is in that distanced, struggling apprehension. Everything ill-remembered, "all I see is a figure named father that could be the figure of any father who knows a child is being beaten who he cannot protect. To someone he loves he cannot fulfil his duty. For this he knows he is never forgiven. This knowledge of fathers, this knowledge of condemnation, is more than he can bear."

Coetzee shows us a proper response worming its way through the brain. The tortured imaginary sees clearly and is free from conscience, certain that it takes the painful path out of absolute need imposed on it by others. No responsibility, therefore. Instead, only the glorification of the abuses dispensed, in reality or in dream.

February 17, 2007

"Case 40/61"

Scattered throughout Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem are several references to the trial reporting of Dutch author, Harry Mulisch. His account of the Eichmann in Israel has finally appeared in English as Criminal Case 40/61, the Trial of Adolf Eichmann: An Eyewitness Account (2005, University of Pennsylvania Press). If there is a necessary supplement to the "report on the banality of evil" it is this travelogue by Mulisch. His travels are, like Arendt's, intellectual journeys into the realm of the unprecedented and the implications of such destruction in the nuclear age.

But they are also accounts of his movements through Israel itself, a then-young nation, its multifarious constituencies searching for literal and figurative grounding. Once again that metaphor of foundation and certainty, once again its elusiveness. If Arendt's thinking considers thought itself, Mulisch is a master of living texture. He notes the traces of history pressing into the present. He writes as much about the landscape as the trial. In each image of what he sees, and what the Bible tells him once was, we hear the omnipresent tension that exists between the reality faced and the oscillating play of prophecy and memory. Between those realms there can be no reconciliation.

Two telling passages: the first about the white-housed villages in the hills two hours from Jerusalem. Russians, Moroccans, Poles, Persians, or Yeminites are clustered together in their tiny communities, bound by the respective languages. The center of gravity is the idea of the land they occupy:

"In the center of the circle there is a square nucleus with shops, schools, and recreation center. Only that center is Israel, the mortar, the melting pot, where people meet, where children play, where they are taught int he common language, Hebrew. That is why Israel's dramatic experiment, thought to be impossible, works, and it seems to be successful. Here one can learn the meaning of 'courage from desperation.' It is Sabbath: not a soul outside. Seeing the motionless white villages in the endless landscape, where Joshua once made the sun stop, I am filled with awe, while at the same time desperate desertedness is is creeping up on me, which is hiding behind this pioneer spirit: the double face of the persecutor."

The second from later pages perfectly cast by his ethnographic eye:

"In the hills around the city, there are Bedouin everywhere. There is one walking here, there are two sitting there; one is standing over there; another is riding his donkey. It is as if a movie director has distributed them, with a great sense for harmony, but it is their own instinctive feeling for space that makes them take possession of the landscape, in such a light way, without conquering it, without destroying it, despised by a people that should be able to remember that one ought not despise peaceful minorities."

Against this backdrop, like Arendt Mulisch is searching for a way to make sense of Eichmann's two faces. He uses actual images of Eichmann to suggest a point. One shows Eichmann in harsh shadows, eyes sinking to darkness. The other is evenly lit and presents an unremarkable figure, just a man, and a mood benign. The grim tones of the former picture lead us into the temptation to see the monstrosity emerging from within that man, making its way to the surface.

This, says Mulisch, misses the chilling recognition that it is the cool, distanced face that is the true pose of the killer who looks out quite contentedly, viewing without a flinch an accepted, natural order of destruction. And that image of the face twisted with shadows as if overcome with cancer? That image is the look of the witness, the one forced to grapple with the articulation of the "offenses" and their troubled (and troubling) formations and formulations.

In Arendt the argument is that Eichmann cannot grapple. He cannot think outside himself and therefore never does bear witness to what he has done, the destruction he helped bring about. Mulisch reads him differently. There may not be recognition of the crimes, but there has been, on that human heart, an unexpected "effect" and it demands of us a reckoning: "Now that there is . . . the tormented horror [writ on the face] I for one would not even throw the one-thousandth stone very quickly. This is the enigmatic face of the man, who, in 1939, gave the order to punish severely anyone who desecrated Theodor Herzl's grave in Vienna. Herzl was the founder of Zionism. At the thirty-fifth commemoration of his death, perplexed Jews saw a lone figure in civilian clothes at the tomb. It was Eichmann."

February 13, 2007

Reading Arendt Reading Eichmann

In his opening remarks during the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Israel's Attorney General Gideon Hausner paints a vivid picture of Eichmann as a beast operating with instinctual, predatory passions. He killed with malice, operating with hatred from his marrow, and even with his bare hands did he show himself an enemy of mankind and the Jewish people (part of the accusations is that he once strangled a Hungarian Jewish boy). He was, understandably in the state's view, no longer human.

Certainly the chief complaints about Hannah Arendt's analysis of the 1961 trial is her ability to read Eichmann against the grain of this portrait. Her rendering in Eichmann in Jerusalem does not confirm the monster Hausner offered. It is not that of a beast. In one of the frequent sentences of pique, she suggests that one could likely see him as a "clown"; but even if that is allowed one must, against all revulsion, take seriously his actions and reasoning. And so she thinks seriously about the bureaucrat and "specialist" who severed all ties to what one would normally call the inhibitions of "conscience."

One of the great virtues of her work comes from the refusal to yield to a central expectation that such a horrendous "crime" must emerge from someone who was not "human," or if human, clearly knew, on some fundamental level, that he had committed crimes. It is precisely that refusal, however, which has set her at odds with so many critics, bringing consistent condemnation and confusion. For many, it is simply unfathomable that on the surface of things, Eichmann may have been less than his impact. What they cannot likewise understand is how he represents, in this way, something just as chilling as an openly crude anti-Semite like Julius Streicher.

What confounds so many is that Eichmann appears in the glass booth at once without malice and without remorse. To occupy both positions simultaneously, to present both faces, in the wake of the Holocaust he helped carry out, seems absolutely impossible. For the Israeli court, both positions could only be lies. Both the state prosecution and the judges saw in Eichmann was the decision to participate in spite of what must have been a conscience telling him "Thou shall not kill." This, however, relies on a notion of conscience that remains in all cases steadfast and "unequivocal." The insistence on such universals, says Arendt, "signifies a deliberate refusal to take notice of the central moral, legal, and political phenomena of our century" (148). That deliberate refusal continues today.

What Arendt saw in that impossible combination of Eichmann is itself two-fold. First was his absolute identification with the genocidal language of the Reich. In Arendt's reading, National Socialism provided "language rules" ideal for someone like Eichmann, who steeped in cliche and formulaic expressions--language as technical assembly--readily escaped "thought." Critiques of Arendt have pounced on this description of Eichmann inability to think and tried to show him as cunning and therefore dangerous. For instance, in his 2005 piece for Commentary, Hillel Halkin says of Eichmann, "far from seeming mindless, he strikes one as impressively capable of analyzing what he is asked; of detecting its hidden traps; of breaking it down into its components; or rearranging these in new sequences that suit the responses he wishes to give; and of replying in complex and sometimes long-winded sentences over which he keeps full logical and syntactical control." None of that refutes Arendt's claim that Eichmann could not think the position of another. This is not to say that Eichmann was completely void, or a mute brute; rather, that he was encapsulated in formulas that, however re-arranged, foreclosed the possibility for understanding.

Secondly, she emphasizes that Eichmann's atrocities were sustained by a complex set of cultural and societal relations which existed before and during the destruction of European Jews. The hierarchy of leaders and their communities, the privileging of the "esteemed" at the expense of the stateless newcomer (as with the Ostjuden), or military veterans earning exceptions not granted to "the recently nationalized" all endorsed the same logic as that of the camp selection. "[Eichmann's] conscience was indeed set at rest when he saw the zeal and eagerness with which 'good society' everywhere reacted as he did. he did not need to 'close his ears to the voice of conscience,' the [court's] judgment has it, not because he has none, but because his conscience spoke with a 'respectable voice,' with the voice of respectable society around him" (126). Troubling enough was Arendt's willingness to name that appeasing voice "conscience." Worse was her integration of the Jewish Councils' actions with an appraisal of Eichmann.

She adds that his perverse devotions to the concepts of obedience and murderous laws further worked to armor him from recognizing the malignancy of his actions. Arendt shows that it was far more than the argument that he was simply following orders. Instead, by claiming his fulfillment of his "duty" and his "oath" to the "law" as it came from the Fuhrer, Eichmann was not saying he had been compelled against his will, but that he had given his will a new name, allowing it to be subsumed by the concept of obedience. It was through this volatile mix that the assumed inner voice of conscience in someone like Eichmann was smothered, choked to death by "respectable society" and the moral and legal collapse of his nation.

For Arendt, this more than just a diagnosis. As a "report" it collects a certain constellation of related claims and observations. The problem was how to judge Eichmann (and anyone else) so immune to the consequences of actions taken. Eichmann in Jerusalem is a book, therefore, that performs an inquiry not only into the subject Eichmann but into judgment itself in the wake of the Holocaust. She is in search of grounds for a judgment to come.

Is such an approach to Eichmann a form of exculpation? Is this "humanizing"--a dubious description of Arendt's portrait--designed to dilute the burdens of Eichmann's responsibility? It is impossible to engage truly Arendt's reading of Eichmann and come to such a conclusion, and yet it continues to happen. For those of good will, like students coming to Arendt and Eichmann for the first time, such a reaction stems from habits of differentiation that make Eichmann so vexing. If he was incapable of "thought" that does not mean that he was not acting in such a way as to be beneath judgment, only that the judgment must try and account for the particularities of Eichmann's numbed Kadavergeshoram.

For those who ought to know better, political necessities and ideological blindness lead to unnecessary distortions. Consider the tortured responses of the much-cited Walter Laqueur, who was involved in the early '60s U.S. response to Arendt when Eichmann in Jerusalem first appeared. He published his History of Zionism in 1972 and certainly had time to re-think his initial responses. But in 1997 he remains troubled by the status of Arendt. In "The Arendt Cult: Hannah Arendt as Political Commentator," Laqueur tries to offer a thorough cataloging of Arendt's mistakes and lapses. Included in these is the idea that she paved the way for a functionalist interpretation of the Holocaust. This interpretation eschews the notion of German "evil" for a universal explanation of blameless mechanisms. Such an argument, Laqueur says, could only find a home with Germans seeking solace and what he calls, with apparent seriousness, "the moral relativism of the postmodern movement [sic]" in the United States.

By diminishing Eichmann, says Laqueur, Arendt "put the blame for the mass murder at the door of all kind of middle-level bureaucrats." As a consequence, "the evildoer disappears, or becomes so banal as to be hardly worth our attention, and is replaced by all kind of underlings with a bookkeeper mentality with a bookkeeper mentality. Hitler turns into a boring Spiessburger." So according to Laqueur, Arendt's refusal to follow Hausner's lead was an attempt to blanch the whole question: shifting "blame" downward to the underling so that the crime no longer warrants our attention, the rot of this displacement then ascending up the hierarchy so that even Hitler appears guilty of nothing more than bourgeois pretensions. Such a reading is absolutely and appallingly absurd. But it is not, sadly, surprising.

Doesn't Laqueur's position bring us back to Arendt's aim at hierarchies such as those that comfortably categorize the crimes of underlings as "hardly worthy of our attention"? One of the aspects she finds so repulsive in Eichmann is precisely his slavish devotions to matters of privilege and status, positions and roles that are thoroughly social if also sometimes bureaucratic. As she writes of such categories:

"While the veteran and other privileged groups are no longer mentioned [in Germany], the fate of 'famous' Jews is still deplored at the expense of all others. There are more than a few people, especially among the cultural elite, who still publicly regret the fact that Germany sent Einstein packing, without realizing that it was a much greater crime to kill little Hans Cohn from around the corner, even though he was no genius" (134).

February 8, 2007

With Bellow and Back

The more unmasterable the subject, the more it is subject to the reductions of simplifying voices. Simple and easy ideas drop on our heads "like butterfly nets." So says Saul Bellow while meditating on the trouble of thinking Israel, describing in this case the Sartrean influences that permeated discourse on the Middle East in the 1970s. Taking flight through his own journey and amateur's attempt at analysis provides for much questioning and loving wonder; a deep appreciation for the remnants . . . of memory, dust, and the living lives encountered.

But it is Bellow, so there is also much blunt bluster and quick asides tossed off as hard-boiled truths. Sartre is dismissed. Kissinger's manipulations, too. Other simple ideas thread new nets, however. The capillaries of memory are what give the flush to every conversation he recounts from his time in Jerusalem. And so there is also the craving for the space removed from these assaults of the past and the present--on the flesh and the mind--as when he finds himself in the library of an Armenian church, a library filled with illuminated manuscripts and built upon an "ancient cistern, which provided exactly the degree of humidity necessary for the preservation of these relics." It was, he says, tempting to stay for an eon in such a climate. But it is impossible, for the pleasure of the peace is felt as a contrast to what is outside. Peace, therefore, reminds one at once of the deep "social wounds" and of "how painful it is to think continually of nothing but aggression and defense, superpowers, diplomacy, terrorism, war."

As he puts his political impulses against the intellectual materials marshaled to clarify the situation he is left with more unnerving questions than certitude; if there is realism and understanding in To Jerusalem and Back (1976) it is the realistic and still timely understanding that whatever may come from such attempts to make sense of situations embodied by Israel and its political and historical dynamics will only come tentative, and too often already staled by cant or the narrowness of having to say something:

"Trying to put it all together, 'to come to clarity,' as one of my professors used to say. What a nice thing to come to. But this subject resists clarification. Matters like Islamic history, Israeli politics, Russian ambitions, and American problems--foreign and domestic--interpose themselves, to say nothing of Third World upheavals and the crisis of Western civilization. Instead of coming to clarity, one is infected with disorder. And I've found that talking to public figures one reads about in the papers and books doesn't always help. My most unprofitable conversations have been with the people who presumably had most to say."

February 3, 2007

History Lesions

When there was no Israel, the Holocaust served political purposes for Zionists in Palestine. Since 1948 the Holocaust has continued to evolve beyond historical truth, a trope-set circulating through the collective. It can be continuing proof of the Diaspora's disastrous fate, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising's symbolic martyrdom, or the rhetorical punch for describing Israel's worldly relations. Almost always it is a compulsive combining of eternal victimization and the moral imperative of a secure future: "never again." That imperative suspends the ethical in the name of self-defense and as real threats grow, so too the metaphorics of that which happened.

For example, last month in the Jerusalem Post, Israeli historian Benny Morris turned the language of history into the spur of prophecy. In his promise of the nuclear annihilation planned by Iran, an end that will happen, Morris uses the Holocaust to forecast something far worse. He casts those old European atrocities as more intimate and "tactile," somehow humanly quaint compared to the "impersonal" disaster that will rain down from the morning blue skies above the desert. In other words, this time, the enemy's weapons cannot be seen, deciphered, or resisted. Disaster is everywhere, always, and perpetual.

The texture of his rant may borrow from familiar fears, but could not be further from sharing the critical spirit shown by Adorno's comment that "The horror of our day has arisen from intrinsic dynamics of our own history; it cannot be described as exceptional. And even if we do think of it as an exception and not the expression of a trend--although this latter is not implausible, given that the atom bomb and the gas chamber have certain catastrophic similarities--to do so is somehow absurd in the light of the scale of the disaster" (History and Freedom).

On the contrary, Morris's apocalyptic talk seems like a plea to escape from history by leaping into a new future. It is meant, if it can be said to have any meaning whatsoever, to shame Israeli leaders into the dream of a pre-emptive elimination of the Iranian threat (Iranian in name only since the flight of those coming missiles has been traced not by the politics of today but a veritable universe of antisemitism, including what he sees as the Western "demonization" of Israel). Given the nation's isolation and vulnerability, will its leaders protect its citizens through its own rightful use of a nuclear strike, or simply let the Jews of Israel be vaporized like lambs in the pasture? Morris pokes with another prediction: "Israel will prove unequal to the task, like a rabbit caught in the headlights of an onrushing car. Last summer, led by a party hack of a prime minister and a small- time trade unionist as defense minister, and deploying an army trained for quelling incompetent and poorly armed Palestinian gangs in the occupied territories and overly concerned about both sustaining and inflicting casualties, Israel failed in a 34-day mini-war against a small Iran-backed guerrilla army of Lebanese fundamentalists (albeit highly motivated, well- trained and well- armed). That mini-war thoroughly demoralized the Israeli political and military leaderships."

Idith Zertal's works help one recognize the nature of such rhetoric and the dangerous compulsions it inspires, generation to generation. From Catastrophe to Power (California, 1998) and Israel's Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood (Cambridge, 2005) both show the intense and desperately uneven relationship between the destruction of European Jewry and Israel's emergence and continuing operation as a state. As Zertal demonstrates, an author like Morris may be shrill and quickly countered by some (as he was in subsequent editions of the Jerusalem Post), but the language spreads. Israel's Holocaust catalogs the sustaining rhetoric of "Auschwitz" with devastating clarity. It is agonizing to read, frightening to witness emerging in ever new contexts.

Reading her work helps approach the recent discourse of Israel, Iran, Holocaust denial, relentless Holocaust fears, and the mis-equation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism. One can approach without being able to calculate the spiralling effects, of course. And the closer one gets to tracing the threads of the web, the more likely one is to be ensnared in the demented and tormented conflations of past and present.

February 1, 2007

The Wake of Nightmares

you cling because
I, like you, only sooner
than you, will go down
the path of vanished alphabets
the roadlessness
to the other side of the darkness
your arms
like the shoes left behind,
like the adjectives in the halting speech
of old men,
which once could call up the lost nouns.

Galway Kinnell turns 80 today and tonight will be in New York City, reading to a room of admirers, friends, and onlookers while the city life outside dwarfs that hour, shrinks that room, swallows the electrified and brittled words of the reading. While the event unfolds, the old man before the microphone is dying before the eyes of the audience, working through another combination of his words put together to give a taste of a way of seeing, sensing, and making sense.

Still, beyond, scattered throughout the boroughs children will be working at sleep: caught on the threshold of rest and restlessness, awake in the dimness full of anxious fear, deep in lovely dream, or simply swamped by the blackness of oblivion. While they sleep the whole city, and everywhere, shifts to the interminable (like language itself?) "cadence of vanishing." With each word he recites tonight and with each hand he shakes in the afterwards of a ceremonial night, certainly, a child will also wake for briefest instant, see the dark room that is their immediate world, sense the certainties or shudder with the perceived enormity beyond, then lapse once more.

Kinnell's most famous book of poetry is surely "The Book of Nightmares." It is a long, bracing fable for the child of such thresholds, each "Little Sleep's-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight." It teaches the only true lesson to the loved child: despite the inevitable sense of being orphaned in the world, a voice will call, spectral, voicing a fatherly presence that is, despite the content, all that is necessary: that the wages / of dying is love.

It is the voice that whispers, unheard at the time, promises of what will be shared, if properly felt, that rarest truth. Learn, it insists, and moreover instills through performance and showing, the false hope of one day this will only be memory. "Learn to reach deeper / into the sorrows," it says and shows, reminding itself all the while. Theirs is the inevitable truth that binds the voice, nearing knowing and calming itself so as to teach the child in the crib, there on the cusp:
Listen, Kinnell,
dumped alive
and dying into the old sway bed,
a layer of crushed feathers all that there is
between you
and the long shaft of darkness shaped as you,
let go.

Even this haunted room
all its materials photographed with tragedy,
even the tiny crucifix drifting face down at the center of the earth,
even these feathers freed from their wings forever
are afraid.