December 27, 2008

Without Exit

Tom Segev's bitter commentary in Haaretz today attempts to tie the restrictive weight of history to the momentum of the ongoing Gaza seize. There is nothing new here, he says, as if the past disasters could possibly serve to illuminate the present rather than explain its necessity. Bombardment as enlightenment-styled punishment of the barbarians, the attempt to create a particular political perspective in a sphere beyond control, the anxious moral blindness of claiming "self-defense."

To that he may have added the compulsion to act out of the need to avoid passivity. And to that the desire to beat back the specter that says all failures were the result of prior restraint. As Segev writes, "[the one] historical truth worth recalling in this context: Since the dawn of the Zionist presence in the Land of Israel, no military operation has ever advanced dialogue with the Palestinians."

As Ehud Barak promises to kill this ghost of Lebanon, to employ the necessary excess, to stop at nothing to eliminate Hamas rocket fire, the rockets reach further into Israel.

Segev's comments are brief. One suspects he cannot bear to say too much more. For what? He has written too much already to too little effect. The stories of the 7th million, the dangerous deliriums of 1967, the summer of 2006, and still now, yet again, it plays out deadly and heartbreaking: the return to the grotesque place without exit. Surely he feels his words strangled.

It was, then, in another newspaper piece that recently appeared where, perhaps, a more appropriate idea came for thinking about these "dark times." It was not about the long conflict, its brutality and senselessness, but about the now dead playwright Harold Pinter. It was about the subtle play between idea, word, and proximity; people trapped with each other.

In his encomium, Ariel Dorfman praised Pinter's artistic treatment of a fundamental recognition -- that political plights came from the intimate turns of language, the trembling distance between people bound together in tight quarters; where words build brittle bridges, all too many of which are blown. There may not have been commentary on historical and political events in those early plays, Dorfman writes,

And yet, by trapping us inside the lives of those men and women, Pinter was revealing the many gradations and degradations of power with a starkness I had not noticed before in other authors who were supposedly dedicated to examining or denouncing contingent politics. All power, all domination and liberation started there, he seemed to be saying, in those claustrophobic rooms where each word counts, each slight utterance needs to be accounted for, is paid for in some secret currency of hope or suffering. You want to free the world, humanity, from oppression? Look inside, look sideways, look at the hidden violence of language. Never forget that it is in language where the other parallel violence, the cruelty exercised on the body, originates.

The shouts of protest, the statements of statesmen, the editorial endorsements and cries of rightful outrage seem so far from what is actually being exchanged with that "secret currency" of need and evil.