Overlooking the Valley of Tears

He was weathered like an old Florida surfer but as far from surf as can be, here on a hilltop accessed by a single-lane gravelly road where a café cutely called “Coffee Annan” served cappuccino to help buffer the cool breeze outside. He didn’t have coffee, but stood in the lee of the crest of the hill selling honey of a dozen sorts, nicely jarred.

It was the end of the day, sun quickly setting. He was a Druse, about 70, a retired high school math teacher, with good English as well as Arabic and Hebrew. We had climbed steeply up the old volcanic dome to park among other cars where tourists come to see the abandoned battlements perched strategically on the dome overlooking the Golan plains. He sold his honey from the trunk of his sedan. “Honey,” it turned out, was sometimes bee honey, but mostly any fruit – apple, grape, cherries, figs  — crushed and cooked allowing natural sugars to ferment. He knew all the Russian names of his assortment of sugars. The bunkers and observation points scattered with tourist information lay just beyond the dozen or so cars parked on the gravel in relative disorder.

Walking to the edge of the battlements on Mt. Betal, balancing our coffee, we could see the strikingly beautiful plains below, the Valley of Tears where Syrian tanks, outnumbering Israeli armor ten to one, nearly broke through to the Galilee four decades ago. With a smile and wonderfully friendly eyes, and a neat mustache white with age, our gregarious Druse told us he had a brother in Lebanon, another in Syria, another in Jordan, another in Israel – gesturing with his hand 360 degrees as if to remind us that each brother was more or less in view, only a stone’s throw away. When he learned I was American, his face lit up as he announced a cousin in Oklahoma City.

Looking down and across the landscape, I could see no clue across the fields or up to the base of the mountains of national borders. Lining up the honey we would purchase, our obliging vendor seemed to be saying that he could live in any of the neighborhoods – they were all the same to him, and he liked them all. The history under and amidst these run down bunkers didn’t lessen his good cheer a bit.

“Violence? ! ” — Why not the startle of Wonder?

For months now, I’ve been among the swamp-lilies and woodchucks and under the sublime heavens of Thoreau.  But occasionally I come up to test the air for another breeze. Yesterday I came across Dean Dettloff’s remarks on Derrida and violence and repentance.  I love the way Dean thinks, but not the way Derrida so often throws care in thinking off to the side for (what seems to me) theatrical effect.

These remarks caught my eye, not least because Thoreau makes you listen to every word you use, and I love his care in renditions of what we are in the world,  and how we assess our positions there.  I’ve come to think Derrida (and many others who are fashionable continental philosophers) doesn’t teach us that, to our misfortune.  I decided to take a short break from Thoreau, to exhibit what I mean by this misfortune — a philosophical and cultural misfortune — that crops up in the jargon of violence.  It spreads like wildfire.

I don’t go directly to any text of Derrida, so I’m dealing with hearsay, except that I trust Dean’s readings.  ( I do know first hand that Derrida doesn’t’ give a close reading of Fear and Trembling on Abraham and Isaac in The Gift of Death.)

Derrida takes up the theme of repentance and notes that if I repent an “I” in the present takes a step back from an “I” in the past to cast judgment on a past bad deed, done by a bad person , and in repentance  I disassociate myself from both deed and person, and then vow to be different, to be better, to be a ‘new person.’ The account, if a bit tongue-twisting, seems on target so far. What struck me as miles off target was Derrida’s description of a self stepping back from its earlier incarnation (the previous self one wants to repent of) as an act of violence against oneself. But philosophically, to my eye, that’s blind thrashing about.

Just a minute ago I blurted something out, and immediately I feel foolish or ashamed of the blurt. Half of conscious life (or maybe it’s only 22%) is kind of ‘self review’, an exercise of self-awareness, an attempt to “know thyself.” Yet ‘self-review’ is not always a violent stepping back.  Sometimes it’s a clinical or curious or doubtful or melancholy or happy stepping back.

We value our capacity to step back, to say — “Gee, I’m sorry!” ; or, “I think I’ve finally got what that movie last night was really all about!” ; or, “I wish I had been more attentive!”  For Derrida to call all this separation of me-now from me-yesterday a line up of violent acts and actors takes a word that has high shock-value — and often legitimate shock value — into a new domain — for theatrical effect. He grabs our attention, the way someone yelling ‘fire’ in the theater grabs our attention. But if someone yells ‘fire’ too often, we come to know there is no fire, it’s just theater in the theater.  Or we come to think that “fire,” yelled in the theater, only means someone is lighting a cigarette.  When a real fire breaks out, we’ve stopped listening — to our peril.  We pay a price. “Violence,” like “rape’ or ‘torture’ or ‘beheading’ should be used when we mean the horror associated with it — used only then. Otherwise the word has no power when we really need it. Derrida both manipulates us with shock-appeal and ‘devalues’ a most important concept we should not throw around carelessly.

A moment of genuine repentance can be a good thing, not a bad thing — not a slicing or slashing or knifing. Many acts of self-awareness, when I in some sense divide myself from myself, are salutary. And many acts of self-separation are neither — neither violent nor salutary but something else altogether.

If I rummage through memory. The me doing the rummaging separates off from the me being rummaged. But that’s a neutral thing if I’m trying to remember where I left my keys.  It’s less neutral  if I’m rummaging for that moment when I made a fool of myself or rummaging for that lost moment when my father looked lovingly at me. I don’t sense violence in these instances of ‘self review,’ only a redirection of my attention. This redirection can be an act of love or self-acceptance or just a neutral review. To violently overuse “violence’ is a little like Tourette’s syndrome, an outburst of profanity. Sure, it grabs your attention, but . . .

On a much happier note, Dean also asks about Merold Westphall’s view that prayer is de-centering. I think to say that prayer is de-centering is a new fashioned way of saying that we work, in prayer, for selflessness, for putting the acquisitive and power-hungry self aside, letting a power say to us what it will, without our anxiously waiting to interrupt or explain — or get angry or confused if all we hear is heaven’s silence. If the self is typically centered on its projects, trying to get something done, that moment of prayer is when the “let’s do it!” executive self melts away. It’s so very hard to pray because it’s hard to deactivate the executive or self-righteous, proud self — without being executive or proud or self-righteous in the process. (Look, mom, look Pastor Q, — aren’t I really righteous now, right now, praying just like you showed me!)

I think we’ve devolved to the point that whenever the world is shattered or our routines are interrupted, we think it can only be a dark moment of violence, a knife suddenly being flashed.  This is not unlike Levinas’s view that I only ‘discover’ the person before me as a source of proper attention as she or he pleads “don’t kill!” –as if my normal way of intervening or interrupting in another’s life is pulling a knife, and I need to be reminded not to.

Both Benjamin and Levinas lived through a great cultural crisis where almost every thing — (almost) — was uniformly ‘negative’ and violent. Benjamin, to simplify, says that we need to be ‘rescued’ and God will do that.  And he labels the appearance of the messiah a moment of “Divine Violence” (that’s an extreme condensation and ought to be qualified in a longer account). But why not frame a messianic interruption as the surprising intervention of good? Not all interventions are violent any more than a caress that intrudes on routine bodily boundaries — and surprises — is always a violation or violent.

Levinas tells a story of gratuitous good – a woman dropping the rock she was about to embed in the skull of her torturer and instead miraculously offers him bread.

If God is a God of love (at least some of the time), or if love has a chance, or if beauty has a chance, or if gentleness has a chance, or if my caress can be tender, and acknowledged by you as tender, then in these cases our worlds are shattered not by violence but by love, by beauty, by the charm of a child’s smile, by a gentle touch.

To think that love is violence because it in fact shatters our world is falling for an unnecessary verbal-metaphysical trap. Love and wonder and gentleness are one thing. Cuts and hurts are another. Why let a misguided metaphysical theatricality reduce all those loving and wondrous and tender things to acts of violence? (Did Zizek really say Gandhi was more violent than Hitler?)  If we can turn love into violence, why not let bad guys turn violence into love?  We should give a hearty cheer  of appreciation of the metaphysical, ideological sophistication of the murderer or the Hitler who claims philosophically that all murder or extermination is really an act of love.

To circle back to Thoreau, his assurance is that wonder and beauty and allure and melody keep invading his world, yes, in a shattering way — and I cherish his unflinching assurance that all that shattering is so often heavenly, rebuilding and restoring – and that to undergo it is to come alive anew, now.

In the present cultural-philosophical dispensation, that’s quite a novel philosophical outlook! We’re in dark times, and Thoreau would have us see light.  The common wisdom seems so often to promote the opposite. We are in dark times, and should only nod approval as  our philosophers make them darker.

My Venture with Thoreau is Politically Incorrect

For the most part, I live my life day by day, ducking the ideological warfare that seems to come with the territory, living in Israel.  Tomorrow is Rosh Hashanna, the start of the new year, this year to be celebrated outdoors by the extended family.  Being short on conversational Hebrew, I’ll bring a volley ball and sneak extra pieces of the honey cake.  But as we were returning last night from a leap-and-dive sunset play in the Mediterranean surf, thinking of my fall class on Thoreau, I began to ponder the way one can in a car facing traffic. I began silently to compose to the sway of the Kia Soul — sketch out a response to the strange situation of teaching in defiance of an American political boycott.  You can amble on to another page if you wish, but here’s what you get if you stay.  Beware, it’s a bit long, and mildly ideological — or anti-ideological.  In any case, as you’ll see, a bit tongue in cheek.

Boycotting American-Israeli Academic Exchange:

Moving the agenda forward

Not quite a year ago, the august American Studies Association passed a resolution that put many American Studies scholars on notice. As an American on a work visa teaching Thoreau in Israel, I realized that I was now in violation of a protocol passed by a prestigious academic association to which I belonged.

Passed by a large margin of the membership, the intent of the resolution was to shut down fraternization between Israeli professors and professors from the States — and here I was enjoying my cappuccino at a table in the outdoor café of the Diaspora Museum on the campus of Tel-Aviv University. Would I be arrested for political incorrectness?

My Israeli colleagues, who liked cappuccino and a sunny afternoon as much as I do, most of them left-leaning (if that matters), seemed more dismissively amused than worried. The resolution from the States was a gentle slap, and a well-meaning pro-Palestinian gesture. What’s to not like? But as the conversation meandered into focus, and a slight breeze made it even harder to leave for other work, a consensus emerged: the American initiative was curiously limited.

One thing was clear. The boycott wouldn’t budge policy in Jerusalem. In fact Bibi (Prime Minister Netanyahu) could only be delighted. He would accept all the help he could get in undercutting leftist or progressive Tel-Aviv and Hebrew University faculties, whose pro-Palestinian leanings he despised.

On the other hand, it only scratched the surface of what could be done. Brainstorming began in earnest. Why limit this well-meaning gesture to travel restrictions? Who keeps track of academics crossing the Atlantic for research or lecture junkets anyway? And what were the consequences for those who turned a blind eye?

The whole project began to seem unimaginative and all too easy to stonewall or cheat. We needed an agenda with more bite. I became secretary for this rump congress, jotting down suggestions served up by my friends.

Here in telegraphic brevity is the gist of the immodest proposals.

  • Publish speaker lists of all conferences where Israelis and Americans co-mingle, and highlight offenders: distribute the lists widely
  • Target articles by Israelis who publish in American journals as well as articles by Americans publishing in Israeli journals: distribute the lists widely
  • Earmark for boycott books published recently by Israeli academics in English that are intended for American academics: distribute the lists widely

We were just beginning to roll. By and large, academics have better things to do than debate the politics of their professional organizations, but the setting was congenial and surely the arrogance of Israeli power was disturbing. Proposals flashed, showing more and more bite. I continued to record them.

  • Earmark for dis-acquisition books in American libraries published by Israeli academics over the past ten years
  • Identify and distribute warnings against reading pro-Zionist books
  • Create a list of dangerous Jewish writers who favor a Jewish state.

The breeze from the Mediterranean picked up, as if to confirm our sense that last Spring’s boycott resolution was little more than a gnat bite. New proposals pushed the envelope; but then, we were brainstorming, not being cautious. There was a mad logic at work.

  • Initiate twitter campaigns harassing Americans traveling to Israel for any reason at all
  • Develop a ‘watch list’ of Americans traveling to Israel, and of Israeli students, professors, or citizens traveling to the States
  • Campaign to have Amazon drop Zionist, pro-Israeli books

Now admit it. Even serious lefties know there’s nothing like Jewish humor.

The best suggestion of all was to declare an all-campus Anti-Zionist day: give free tote bags to students and faculty who cast their collections of old Zionist books in a heap on the grassy quad, to be shoveled up later for recycling.

We stifled a laugh, scooped up our laptops, and aglow with the satisfaction of hours well-spent, dispersed to our offices and classrooms for even better work, Israelis and Americans more or less defiantly arm in arm.