Scapegoats, Ken Russell, and the PRB

December 15, 2012

Hunt_TheScapegoat

Reading a  book about Victorian photography,Francis Frith in Egypt and Palestine, I came across these statements about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) painter William Holman Hunt and his picture, The Scapegoat:

” …with its elimination of aerial perspective, its aggressive placement of the goat in the foreground picture plane (even Ruskin could not abide its proximity) and its hallucinogenic detail and color…”

“The Jewish sacrifice of the goat, bearing away the town’s moral iniquities, was for Hunt a clear Old Testatment prefiguration of Christ…”

goatty

This called to mind those bizarre images from Ken Russell’s Altered States.  As usual with Russell, there’s a lot more going on in his weirdness than a shallow desire to shock and be outlandish.

goat1

goat2

goat5


Paradise Lost, Plato’s Cave

September 6, 2012

I am reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost.  He wrote it when he was blind.  Does that mean that he was more cognizant of the eternal truths of the world, free from distraction by one of his senses?  That’s what the Greeks thought of poets, and thus, Homer was blind.

I guess Milton found his way out of Plato’s cave, that dark place where unenlightened men see the shadows of truth dancing on the walls.  But Plato banned poets from the ideal republic:  He was always more about power than justice or truth anyway.

Lots of people have commented that Satan is by far the most interesting character in Milton’s epic poem, but I find myself quite taken with Adam and Eve. 

They are quite the humanist pair:  Adam appears before the angel Raphael, come to warn him against Satan, with appropriate humility, but quite confident and stately in his naked beauty.  I guess Milton only attached the notion of idolatry, against which he railed, to costume, gold, temples, and the like, while it seems to me quite possible to idolize, rather than idealize, the human form.  Anyway, the two really do love each other, apparently without sin as of yet.

Satan is the tormented soul, and not because he is forced to lie about on a lake of fire after his abortive coup d’etat in heaven.  He has a head full of ideas that are driving him insane, and he can’t stop plotting.  The sight of Adam and Eve, happy in Eden, drives him to a frenzy of rage and jealousy, and what could he do?  He has free will…that’s how it had to be.

I was wondering while reading if Plato could have known of the Old Testament, but my digging indicates that it is improbable.  The book wasn’t translated into Greek until long after Plato’s death, and though there must have been Jews passing through Athens, it is hard to imagine Plato chatting with them in the Agora.  Certainly, he could have known of myths and tales from the east, some of which – The Flood, the Garden of Eden – are common to many traditions.  Eastern thinking, art, and cults were very influential in Greek thought.

The Garden of Eden strikes me as a sort of inverse of Plato’s cave.  The inhabitants have no ‘knowledge’:  they must not eat of the Tree of Knowledge, but they are happy, paradisically so.  When they gain knowledge at the urging of Satan/Serpent, they are beset by sin, lust, and pain.  They are cast out into the world by God.  Wouldn’t Plato have vomited at the thought that knowledge would bring pain and disaster rather than serenity and peace?   But I don’t think he had a notion of sin that needed to be justified.

In the end, however, I find that I am sympathetic to the scripture’s view.  That is, the Greeks may have invented Tragedy, but when it comes to the Old Testament and Plato, he seems naive, while the story of Eden hits on some deeply felt sense that by gaining the world, and all its knowledge, we have lost something.  Even if it’s not something we want back now.


Ballet Russe, Zionism, and Terror

March 22, 2012

In my recent post of Richard Francis Burton’s translation of two short tales from Scheherazade’s 1001, I included a picture of Ida Rubenstein, a figure from fin de sièclela Belle Époque history who was new to me.  She was born to a wealthy family of Russian Jews, came to dance late, for a ballerina, that is, and made a big splash with Leon Bakst and Nijinsky.  Her début was a private performance of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, in which she danced through the seven veils to the nude.  She was denounced by the Archbishop of Paris for dancing as Saint Sebastian in a ballet scored by Debussy, with costumes by Bakst.  Sacrilege!  A Jew and a woman depicting the martyred saint!

During WWII, she fled France for England, where she helped escaped Resistance members, and was intimate with Walter Guinness, her sponsor and sometime lover.  He was assassinated in 1944 by members of the Stern Gang, a terrorist organization of Zionist Jews trying to dislodge Britain from Palestine.

Stern Gang is what the Brits called them, but they referred to themselves as Lehi, but also as ‘terrorists’ and, according to Wikipedia,  may have been one of the last organizations to do so:

An article titled “Terror” in the Lehi underground newspaper He Khazit (The Front ) argued as follows:

Neither Jewish ethics nor Jewish tradition can disqualify terrorism as a means of combat. We are very far from having any moral qualms as far as our national war goes. We have before us the command of the Torah,whose morality surpasses that of any other body of laws in the world: “Ye shall blot them out to the last man.” But first and foremost, terrorism is for us a part of the political battle being conducted under the present circumstances, and it has a great part to play: speaking in a clear voice to the whole world, as well as to our wretched brethren outside this land, it proclaims our war against the occupier. We are particularly far from this sort of hesitation in regard to an enemy whose moral perversion is admitted by all.

There we have it.  Infatuation with The Cause, with Violence, with The Nation.  Sound familiar?  On the principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the Lehi made overtures to Nazi Germany, offering to assist in its war against the British in exchange for allowing the free emigration of Jews to Palestine to join the nation-building cause.

The more I learn about the history of Zionism, and its role as a foundation of Israeli society, the more disgusted I become.  Former Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir, was a member in good standing of the gang.


When in Rome…

February 20, 2012

The Free World is a marvelous first novel by David Bezmozgis, who wrote Natasha, and Other Stories, which was also excellent.  In this book, he relates the fortunes over a period of about six months  of a family of Soviet Immigrant Jews, stuck in Rome, a common way station in the 1970s and 80s for people granted permission to leave the USSR.  That was the period of massive out-migration of Jews from the USSR:  many went to Israel, by far the easiest destination point, but many more went to the USA, where I met them daily while I lived near to Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn.  At times, in some places, only Russian was heard spoken.  The family in this book is destined for Toronto, Canada, where the author grew up.

The story is book-ended by death:  in the beginning, the father, an aging veteran of the Great Patriotic War (against the Nazis, in case you don’t know the lingo) and a Communist loyalist, reminisces over his brother, killed at the front.  It closes with his death, and the letter he received announcing the death of  his brother.  In between, Bezmozgis turns his precise and unsentimental eye on the difficult process of adaptation for the family in transit.  Adapting to Rome, to an uncertain future, to an ad hoc life among a community uprooted, and to the past that dogs them.

For me, the father is the most interesting character, a Latvian who welcomed the Stalinist invasion and annexation to the USSR during WWII, a party official who knows “there were some mistakes…” but who reveals why so many people would tolerate those “mistakes,” a few million dead innocents.  He grew up at a time when people thought the utopian schemes of political scientists were actually taking genuine form, when there was a right and wrong side of History.  He and his brother were so sure of their side, that they stood by while their cousin, a Zionist with no interest in revolution, was deported to Siberia as a suspect element when Latvia was annexed.  Even being nearly shot by a brutal NKVD agent, for no reason at all, doesn’t shake his loyalty.

Now, in Rome, on his way to the triumphant, capitalist West, he watches with disdain and some despair as he hears people around him speaking Yiddish, embracing the shtetl ways of his parents, trying to revive all those old customs he was so happy to abandon.  At one point, at a school program,  his eyes like mine shafts, he endures the sight of his grandchildren singing Hebrew songs on a stage.   Two generations of social progress being reversed before his eyes.

The characters in this book are all  intelligent, which is to say, they think as people really do, rather than as characters do.  They all struggle to make plans, make sense, to find a way forward, and nobody has the answers, nobody is all one way or the other – they are complex.  And like every other Russian novel, it seems, women are treated rather badly all around, by the old line Party man, or by the new opportunists.

Although I was fascinated by the father figure, it is Alec, a smart-alec, unserious fellow who is the main character.  Like everyone else, he is dealing with the past in this novel that is neither about the past nor the future, but that thin line between them.  The fact that it takes place in The Eternal City is an additional irony.  Alec would be an endearing fellow – he’s smart, funny, resourceful, and open-minded – but he is also a cad.  He can’t help it.  He just doesn’t want to let go of his past, doesn’t want to admit he is an adult and must act like one.  So much easier to pretend he’s still thumbing his nose at the stupid ways of the bone-headed society he’s escaping.  He learns the hard way, too late, and we never know just exactly how he will turn out.

As the child of parents who grew up in the USA, and of a father whose parents were completely American and assimilated, I found Alec’s father’s irritation with sociocultural regression amusing.  At any family gathering, there’s always a story about a distant cousin, a brother-in-law of a nephew, etc. etc. who has thrown off the restrictive coil of American consumerism to return to the great freedom of religious orthodoxy.  The beards, the clothes, the huge family, the religious fundamentalism…  I guess it’s like ex-hippies who raise kids that become disciples of Ayn Rand.


Natasha and other stories

February 1, 2012

This collection of short stories by David Bezmozgis, an immigrant to Canada from the USSR left me wanting to read his novel, The Free World.   They are sharp, witty, poignant, and sometimes very disturbing, all focusing on the experience of Russian Jewish transplants to the New World of Toronto.

All the stories are from the viewpoint of Mark Berman, starting when he is about six years old, and in a typical childhood lapse of responsibility, he brings not-quite-mock tragedy to a neighbor by letting her dog run loose, from which a serious injury follows.  A little later in life, Mark is a discipline problem in the Hebrew school he attends, a place from which he would gladly get expelled so he could go to the regular public school, but for the trauma it would bring his parents, or his mother, at least.  Unlike many Russian immigrant Jews I have met, these seem more concerned with maintaining themselves within the religious community.  He receives a harrowing lesson in the meaning of being a Jew, at least as his rabbi conceives it, when he must repent for a disturbance to which he is party on Holocaust Memorial Day.

These stories are not solemn or pious:  Mark has quite a bit of distance between himself and his religious and ethnic heritage.  There is much he may reject, but he is not so foolish as to try to deny it.  He finds comfort in the familiar.

I too find much in his descriptions familiar, while alien at the same time.  For many years, I lived in a section of Brooklyn that was awash with Russian immigrant Jews from the Soviet Union, the last great exodus before the fall of communism.  My ancestors were similar immigrants a hundred years ago or so, and I grew up hearing Yiddish spoken by the older generation, although their English was mostly regular urban American. But the experience of leaving the USSR, not the WWI era shtetl is something else again.

I recall seeing a trio of immigrants in the hallway of my apartment building in Brooklyn:  the pretty young girl, skinny and trying, with some success, to be sexy with her outrageous clothing, and a pair of electric blue eyes; the mother, middle-aged, sturdy, a pretty woman, clearly enjoying the easier life in the USA, and a pair of electric blue eyes; the grand mother, a real Soviet specimen, built like a barrel, wrapped in a dull frock, her face worn and weathered, all her teeth capped in silver, her legs and ankles thick with standing in endless queues for commodities…but those same electric blue eyes!  Three generations’ progress on display!

The title story of the collection finds Mark grown up to high school age, getting high constantly, and obsessed, of course, with sex and girls.  His uncle marries a new immigrant, clearly a woman looking for a ticket out of the USSR and not much more, and the young cousin, Natasha, enters the family.  She and her mother are a real piece of work each, two females who have been ground up into something horrifying and spit out.  Though she is fourteen, she and Mark begin a regular sexual affair, one that seems to lack everything except sex.  It ends abruptly as Natasha’s place in the family is thrown into doubt, just as Mark’s place in the dope-dealing and smoking social circle he has fallen into is suddenly closed to him.  It would be terribly sad, except he seems to come through it okay.  Natasha seems hard as iron, and will survive, but that seems the most that can be said for her.

The final story involves Mark helping his grandfather get a new apartment in a subsidized home for old immigrant Jews.  Two who live there are suspected of being gay.  One dies:  the other, Herschel, doesn’t have title to the apartment.  They weren’t married, of course – the apartment should go to someone else, a good Jew.  The building is run by a rabbi, and it is his job to ensure that the tiny synagogue there has a minyan (the required ten male Jews) for services.  The two gay guys always showed up, which is more than he can count on from the new seekers for the living space.  What should he do?  He’s besieged with requests.  Mark asks what will happen to Herschel and is told:

…my job is to have ten Jewish men.  Good, bad, it doesn’t matter.  Ten Jewish men.  Only God can judge good from bad.  Here the only question is Jew or not.  And now I am asked by people here who never stepped into a synagogue to do them a favor.  They all have friends, relatives who need an apartment.  Each and everyone a good Jew.  Promises left and right about how they will come to synagogue.  I’ve heard these promising before.  And they say:  With so many good Jews who need apartments, why should Herschel be allowed to stay?  This is not my concern.  My concern is ten Jewish men.  if you want ten Jewish saints, good luck.  You want to know what will happen to Herschel?  This.  They should know I don’t put a Jew who comes to synagogue in the street.  Homosexuals, murderers, liars, thieves – I take them all.  Without them we would never have a minyan.

Without them we would never have a minyan.  Could be a slogan for life in general.


Jo sóc un jueu autèntica.

September 2, 2011

Wandering around the medieval quarter of the wonderful town of Girona, peeking into the courtyards in the Jewish quarter, reading plaques about this and that bit of Iberian Judaica that vanished with the Inquisition of 1492, never to return – no Jews here now! – I felt like declaring to the curators or restauranteurs, Jo sóc un jueu autèntica!  (Catalan for, “I am an authentic Jew!)  Maybe get a free snack, or a discount museum admission?  I thought better of it.

Gerona is beautiful and fascinating.  It’s one of those medieval towns that urban planners like to rhapsodize about:  the organic growth; the variety of spaces and spatio-temporal experiences as you walk through it; the multiple uses assigned to spaces – street, square, parking lot, market all in one!  The old town sits on a rock at the confluence of rivers, and is filled with winding streets, surprising squares, a fine set of walls, and a stupendous set of steps to the cathedral.

Urban views don’t get any better than this one from the old bridge in town, up towards the ‘new’ bridge, a metal affair designed by Gustave Eiffel.  The image on the right is of a Romanesque portal to an abbey near the cathedral.   Most of the time, I only get to see this sort of thing in museums, in pieces, but here it is intact, although the paint that originally livened it up is long gone.  The shapes are weird, looking almost like diatoms.  (Click the image for a shot of the full portal.)

The cathedral itself is monumental, and a bit surprising.  I plan another post on the characteristics of Catalan Gothic, but suffice it to say that although the arch on this side portal is pointed, this is not your Frenchman’s gothic.  The church is enlivened, or ruined? by an enormous late baroque façade applied over the original sober elevation.  At that time, the steep and positively enormous flights of steps to the main entrance were added.  I imagine that before that, a winding ramp led the faithful to the door.

Drainage always and everywhere…


Triangle Shirtwaist

March 24, 2011

 

Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the New York City Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire.  In that blaze, more than 140 female workers in the ‘needle trades’ lost their lives, many forced to jump from burning windows to their deaths on the hard pavement below.  The workers were mostly young women, many were just teenage girls, of Jewish immigrant families.  The stories and newspaper images of the women’s horrible deaths deeply shocked the entire city, and brought about serious changes in fire safety regulation, as well as spurring important activism by garment workers’ unions.  

The building was sturdy and withstood the blaze, while everything inside was incinerated.  There were no fire escapes, and many internal doors were locked shut to prevent the workers from taking breaks away from their stations.  Such was sweatshop life in those days. 

This was my grandmother’s generation.  My father’s mother was one of five sisters.  The eldest supported the younger ones by working in such places.  One story I recently heard was that one of my favorite (great) aunts refused to go into the trades when her time came - she stayed in school and then high tailed it for California.  Her older sister resented her action for the next sixty  years.  Such choices they faced!

Today the building sits smack dab in the middle of the student scene around Washington Square Park and NYU.


Four-eyed, commie Jews from the USSR

January 20, 2011

  Vassily Grossman

Two writers, two Jews, two intellectuals with glasses thrown into the midst of unspeakable horror and violence – but such different writers!

I have heard of Isaac Babel for years, but never knew anything about him.  He was always associated in my mind with Jewish literature – but then why is he also linked with the Soviet political elite and its destruction in the Great Purges of the 1930s? 

Nadezhda Mandelshtam talks about him in her overwhelming memoir, Hope Against Hope.  Her husband, Osip, considered to be one of the great poets of Russian in the 20th century, despite his small output (he died in the Gulag) regarded people with power as dangerous individuals to be avoided as you would a live power line.  He asked Babel why was he so fascinated by violence; why did he socialize with high-level members of the security organs, the ‘distributors of death?’  Did he want to rub his fingers in their bloody mayhem?  “No,” Babel replied, “I just want to sniff it, to see how it smells.”   He got his wish.  He was arrested on ridiculous charges of counter-revolution and shot in the usual prison basement.

I have been reading Babel’s stories, Red Cavalry.  They tell of the fighting in the Russian-Polish War of 1920, when both the new Republic and the USSR were fighting to extend their borders.  He is the narrator, or is spoken for by one, who travels with a Cossack fighting unit.  They make fun of his education, deriding his eyeglasses.   Like a teenage boy desperately wanting to fit in with some tough guys, he tries to win their approval even if it means acting brutally to an old peasant woman and scaring her into making him a fine dinner.  The stories are short, filled with cruelty, and quite starkly beautiful at times – clearly the work of a serious artist.  The cossacks are portrayed with an intensity that seems to me almost homoerotic, though Lionel Trilling, in a 1955 essay from the appendix, is quick to dismiss that notion.   When Babel describes the gigantic figure of a Cossack with knee-high boots that caress his legs like clinging young girls, what is one to think?  A four-eyed Jew riding with Cossacks [often the agent of Tsarist or popular violent repression of Jews] – how ironic can you get?

The stories are fascinating and disturbing.  Babel seems to worship the Cossacks the way some weak-minded intellectuals worship “men of action,” the type of intellectual who got misty-eyed about generalissimo Stalin or Adolf Hitler.  But…he’s clever, not simple, so he pulls back from that brink:  but it makes for queasy reading.   

Vassily Grossman, on the other hand, also an enthusiastic revolutionary, at least to begin with, is an enormous contrast.  His works are filled with a profound sense of the tragedy of violence.  He shows it, but he is never intrigued, seduced, or mesmerized by it.  Puzzled by the mystery of human evil and cruelty, but not drawn to it.  He writes of small instances of love that seem to redeem the world in the midst of misery.  (I am reading the new publication by NYRB of stories and nonfiction in The Road.)  He writes of the Sistine Madonna by Raphael, and how it evokes in his mind the story of Christ, the love of mothers for their doomed sons,  and the suffering of the Russian peasant.  And he writes, an historical first, an analysis of the Nazi death camps that he visited.

Grossman was known by many as lucky Grossman.  A grenade landed at his feet, but failed to explode.  As a front-line war correspondent, he had many such lucky escapes.  Perhaps his greatest was evading Stalin’s purge of Jews after WWII:  he was on the list most likely, but Stalin died before the thugs brought him in. 

I was reminded of another four-eyed Jew, no artist, no intellectual, while reading Babel’s stories:  David Brooks.  Specifically, I thought of this column (discussed in this earlier post of mine) in which he goes to mush over the declarations of ‘muscular Christianity’ by a bigoted evangelical. 

When you read Stott, you encounter first a tone of voice. Tom Wolfe once noticed that at a certain moment all airline pilots came to speak like Chuck Yeager. The parallel is inexact, but over the years I’ve heard hundreds of evangelicals who sound like Stott.

It is a voice that is friendly, courteous and natural. It is humble and self-critical, but also confident, joyful and optimistic. . .

Stott is so embracing it’s always a bit of a shock – especially if you’re a Jew like me – when you come across something on which he will not compromise. [Such as, that Jews are damned to hell, I wonder?] It’s like being in “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” except he has a backbone of steel. He does not accept homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle, and of course he believes in evangelizing among non believers. He is pro-life and pro-death penalty, even though he is not a political conservative on most issues.

Brooks loves that “spine of steel,” that unwillingness, or is it inability? to compromise.  He loves the black and white nature of the view.  And he even loves the tribalism, the with us or against us attitude.  I guess Isaac Babel found it shocking how Cossacks looked at Jews like him too, and then fell in love with them when he got close enough to sniff…


Date in history

December 11, 2009

Today is the first night of Hanukkah, that minor historical commemoration that American Jews have transformed into a non-Christian Xmas, just to get into the holiday spirit.  David Brooks, the muddle-headed conservative columnist I used to love to hate (I stopped reading him, so now I don’t care what he writes.) actually had a decent column about the history of the day – maybe his niche is really popular historical writing.  Anything but present-day affairs.

Just a remembrance of a revolt of religious fanatics, Jewish ones (fundamentalists?) against those lovable, rational, cultured, Hellenizers who were ruling Judea at the time.  Lots of Jew-honchos thought the way to go was to get with the Greco-civilization program, but Judas Maccabeus disagreed.  He and his terrorist crew decided to kill off the collaborators and make things hot for the Greeks.  Well, that’s my reading of it, and I tend to side with the moderates. 

Miracles and God, and candles burning on despite the lack of oil, that was all embroidered on later.


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