Friday, April 28, 2006

Brain Sharpening Part II

One of the panels of the Pen conference was about the use of myth in contemporary writing. It was a great discussion, moderated fabulously by Colum McCann.
One of the corollaries of attending panels where writers speak is that you if you like them, you end up buying their books. I bought a book by Jeanette Winterson, a writer I have never read but whose fierce intelligence seduced me. And I bought "The Myth of Samson", by David Grossman because I was transfixed by his thoughts on the myth of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. I wish I could do justice to his train of thought. His ideas were profoundly revealing to me.
He compares the biblical myth of Samson the strongman, with the State of Israel. He sees certain parallels:
Grossman said that we were a people without power for 2000 years and now we have huge military power and borders, which we never had before. He feels that Israel, like Samson, does not really believe in its own power and therefore tends to overreact, breaking down like a child every time it's threatened. As an example he mentioned the first intifada. There were hundreds of Palestinians demonstrating violently, true, but Israel has nuclear weapons. That's the kind of disproportionate reaction we're talking about. Grossman said that not only are Jews the People of the Book, but that they are the people of the story. We have a special and unique story and we believe it but this story has also isolated Jews and Israel from the world. What he would love, and he should know because he lives there, is to make Israel a less mythological place, more grounded in reality. Less fraught with "The Story", and the Bible and the myth of the chosen people, and a place more normal, more boring, more real. I was deeply moved to hear him pine for a boring, normal country. He said that he wished that Israel realized that it could respond with options other than sheer might. It's a concept nobody ever thinks about. Other options could be explored. How simple and how sensible. How shocking.
Grossman is unapologetically Jewish. He is unapologetically enthusiastic about the Bible and Jewish history. He is smart to point out to his audience that he is a secular Jew, because many people do not understand the notion of being a committed Jew who is not religious. I noticed that as he was explaining how Jews are unique in the history of mankind, a woman sitting in front of me rolled her eyes and fidgeted with her pen in clear discomfort with such direct pointing out of our specialness, despite the fact that Grossman's point was, if I understood correctly, that all this voluntary mythification has another, destructive side, of being isolated and negatively mythified by others.
In general it was refreshing to hear writers like Amis and Grossman, who were complex in their allegiances. It made me realize that the discourse here tends to be not very shaded or nuanced, but that people expect you to adhere and subscribe to every cliched tenet of whatever political persuasion you espouse. So by definition, if you are left of center, you have to oppose Israel, hate Bush, rationalize the islamists, etc. Then you hear someone like Grossman who loves the Bible but hates the occupation and resents those who put his country in danger for biblical reasons, who wants to write another Jewish myth, one not engaged in so much defensiveness, and he does this not out of self-hatred but of proud identification.
Or someone like Martin Amis who despises the war in Iraq and still believes it is a defensive war, and he cannot countenance rationalizing the unacceptable islamist war of terror against the West. As he calls it, we live in an age of multicultural relativism (a term he rolls off the tongue as if it contained bitter poison in it), of which I guess that paralyzing political correctness is a byproduct. Amis and Grossman refuse to engage in this wishywashy, hypersensitive to every culture mindset, they refuse to conform to the cliche, and I salute them for that.

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