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."