Thursday, April 27, 2006

Nine Songs

There is something inherently violating about cinema. Oliver Stone once referred to actors as prostitutes, which would, of course, make the camera a client. He could have been thinking of Nine Songs. Before this, I would have marked Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970s films as the epitome of the direct gaze, the refusal of the camera to turn away from the inadvertent reality at the margins of the frame. Bertolucci has been deposed. Michael Winterbottom’s nearly plotless yet oddly linear recollection of a doomed love affair does not merely walk the line between depiction and depicted, it hurls itself over that cliff with a despairing resolution.

For a scandalous film, Nine Songs is remarkably sedate. It moves at a Stanley Kubrick pace, a measured crawl that hypnotizes rather than assaults. The film plays like a porno movie directed by Terrence Malick.

Which brings us to the esoteric obvious in any discussion of Nine Songs: the film’s explicit sexuality. To be less highbrow, and to paraphrase something that was once said of the work of Henry Miller, Nine Songs is about fucking. The film’s sparse 70 minutes consist of nothing but a series of disjointed scenes which ostensibly record, shakey-cam style, a brief relationship between a London climatologist and an American student. The couple chat, cook, have a few fights, and go to rock concerts (the nine songs of the film’s title) and have sex. Everything but the sex, however, is merely a brief interlude. This may be the first non-pornographic film which exists solely in its sex scenes. There is nothing else of any significance going on in this film.

This is, of course, the point. Both inside and outside the film, sex is the dominating factor. The relationship depicted appears purely physical, and the film exists solely to assault the barriers of societal taboos and the limits of cinema. It succeeds on both counts only because the film is, ultimately, about neither sex nor cinema. It is, rather, about despair. Whether this was the intention of its makers or not, by the time the film ends, there is very little ecstasy, sexual or otherwise, to be had.

As I have said, the film is a recollection. A recollection by Matt, the climatologist in question, of Lisa, the unknowable erotic object of his haunting remembrances. Flying above the Antarctic wastes, the vista of empty white is filled by Matt’s disjointed memoir of his brief and now ended affair. The film works only because these recollections are so unbearably truthful and so transparently empty. While we prefer to think otherwise, our memories of our youthful relationships, like those relationships themselves, are almost entirely sexual.

And sexuality is clearly the only dynamic at work here. There is, in fact, nothing about Lisa (as she is recollected) that is interesting or attractive other than her apparently hyperactive sexuality. Matt appears to be a creature of casual indifference and occasional sentimentality. The intimacy between them, such as it is, is almost unbearably shallow. Which is why, of course, the film’s explicitness is essential. In this, it is disturbingly honest. It is often difficult to admit, in our age of talk shows and endless therapy sessions, that actual relationships often consist of two people who never say what they actually mean and quite often say nothing at all. Intimacy has been reduced to the physical purity of penetration.

Winterbottom has hit on something here, whether he has intended to or not. It is the key to his success and his failure. If Winterbottom intended to write a new chapter in cinematic realism, he has failed spectacularly. If he intended to chronicle the despair of a lost generation, he has succeeded in the same measure. The paradox of cinema exposed by Nine Songs undermines its intention. Winterbottom’s camera never turns away. The lens hones in like a merciless knife on penetration, ejaculation, bondage, blow jobs, cunnilingus, and masturbation. But the camera is more merciless than any knife, and this relentless reality serves to expose only a single truth: the camera slaughters the capacity of image. Under the relentless gaze, erect penises and swollen vaginas become objects as banal as a wooden chair or a pile of dirty laundry. The lens is a weapon that annihilates essence, reducing everything to light. Exposing the actor’s organs only emphasizes them as actors. The reality of their intercourse only underlines the fiction of their intimacy. We are watching two people have actual sex, and it serves only to remind us that we are watching two people barren of real intimacy engage in an intimate act for a camera. A camera that is a monstrous and uncontrollable demiurge. A camera that, far from embracing reality, only hurls us farther from it. The camera that does not turn away turns proximity to infinity, and leaves us in a terrible solitude. As terrible as Matt’s cosmic loneliness among the unrelenting ice.

It is here that Nine Songs defeats itself and thus triumphs. Rather than giving us a shocking depiction of actual sex, Winterbottom and his actors have given us an actual depiction of the emptiness of an age of distance. In our modern, globalized, globe-trotting world of absolute freedom, people meet, engage in ecstatic physical intimacy for a brief moment, and then never see each other again. We have returned to the nomadic, and even worse, a nomadic whose essence is solitude. Our freedom to penetrate each other in any manner we please is concomitant with the freedom to disappear, to return to America or to make our pilgrimage to Antarctica and to live only in memories. Memories, like cinema, are only images. The possibilities of life are greater than ever and yet we live surrounded by ghosts. We have been turned into creatures of inconsolable longing. The distance enforced by Winterbottom’s unrelenting camera is the same distance between his actors, who have sex in the actual and intimacy only in the memory that is cinema. Films are ghosts, and the camera can record nothing but that which is already dead. Moments which are as real as the light of dead stars, which lie to us even across the infinite reaches of empty space and illusory time. A distance as vast, profound, and unforgiving as that between the rock band and its enchanted audience, between memory and the remembered, between the dead and the living, between two people fucking for the sake of art… As profound as the distance between the camera and its subject. Nine Songs may have set out to expand the bounds of the erotic. What it creates is a wasteland. It is, in other words, and in spite of itself, a very great film.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Sympathy for the Beast

Peter Jackson’s King Kong

There is a Marxist theory that there are two kinds of monster movies, reactionary and revolutionary.  The reactionary monster film portrays the monster as a foreign menace threatening the traditional order who must be destroyed.  The revolutionary monster film sympathizes with the monster as a creature made monstrous by the established order.  The classic dichotomy is, ironically, perfectly illustrated by the two literary pillars of cinematic horror: Frankenstein and Dracula.  Peter Jackson’s King Kong is unquestionably a revolutionary monster movie.  To the extent that it embraces this tradition it outdoes its predecessors in terms of emotional impact and surprisingly effective sentimentality.  The fact that the film is also a total failure must therefore be blamed solely upon the inability of its director to reign in its overwhelming adoration of its own spectacle.

There is a long history of directors going mad.  It seems to occur at the precise moment when total creative control meets a surfeit of resources.  Francis Ford Coppola managed to retain control of the Godfather films through hustling, bluff, and raw force of personality.  It was only when he also met with complete access to unlimited resources, in the hugely overrated Apocalypse Now, from whom only Vittorio Storaro emerged unscathed, he went, by his own admission, insane.  Michael Cimino’s debacle Heaven’s Gate is probably ground zero for the phenomenon, and George Lucas’s megalomaniacally bloated Star Wars prequels have brought the tradition into the present day.  Film is such an extraordinarily expensive paintbox, as Orson Welles put it, that when a filmmaker truly goes mad the results are always extraordinary, if only in the epic fantasmagoria which is the inevitable product of cinematic failure.

King Kong is not a bad movie in the classic sense.  It is beautifully made, expertly designed, and obviously in love with the possibilities of cinematic spectacle.  It may also go down in history as the quintessential example of a filmmaker completely out of control of himself and his film.  Put simply, this film rules its director, rather than vice versa, and the results are not particularly pretty.

The original film, which was, ironically enough, the first special effects extravaganza of the sound era, is hampered by the crudity of its technology, but it nonetheless grips the viewer in the way that only the most brilliant B-movies can do.  George Lucas and Steven Spielberg did not invent the art of high/low cinema.  King Kong was already there in 1933.  I can personally remember staying up until midnight when I was eleven in order to see the original film on television.  I didn’t find it particularly scary, but the elementary simplicity of its story cannot help but appeal to children once it has been married to the unabashed visual excess possible only in cinema.  The original King Kong is both limited in its ambitions and utterly grandiose in its visuals.  The result is a film which, however badly dated it is, remains eminently enjoyable.

How Peter Jackson, who managed to avoid the horrendous reverence for source material which typifies Tolkeinian fandom and create a Lord of the Rings which was both true to its origins and thankfully lacking in portentiousness, ended up treating this monument to the possibilities of high/low cinema as if it were holy writ is impossible to fathom.  Perhaps, as I have said, it is simply the result of infatuation.  Jackson has a child’s nostalgia for the original King Kong and a genius’s flair for expanding endlessly upon it.  What in the original is merely window dressing is here blasted into irrelevant subplots, elaborate action sequences, and the kind of pacing which can only come from the unwillingness of a director to part from a single foot of film.  The movie’s running time has already been mentioned as an issue, but the problem with making a three-hour epic out of King Kong is not so much length in and of itself, but how slight the source material upon which it depends actually is.  There is, in fact, very little going on in King Kong.  It is, ultimately, a monster film which is sympathetic to its subject.  Beyond that, it is utterly conventional.  There are, of course, hidden archetypes galore should one wish to find them.  The virtue of genre films is that they can deal obliquely with issues which a normal film cannot address at all.  It is not necessarily an exaggeration to say that King Kong is the only blockbuster film about bestiality.  All of this, however, is effective because it is not explicit.  Once it becomes explicit, rather than simply evoked, genre becomes drama and turns simultaneously to the absurd.

To say that Jackson’s King Kong is absurd is an understatement of enormous proportions.  The very fact of foisting 200 million dollars and three hours of running time on a story so shallow is inherently absurd, mainly because it is utterly unnecessary.  Nor does the plethora of backstory, literary reference, and cinematic homage which Jackson has grafted on to his film add anything to what is, fundamentally, a story about an enormous ape who falls in love with a hot blonde and proceeds, as a result, to tear New York to pieces.  Everything that may elevate or lower this idea is contained in its original form.  As soon as one expands it, one is turning something wonderfully simple into something woefully complicated, rather like remaking The Maltese Falcon as though it were Hamlet.  There is, quite simply, nothing good that can come from it.

Still, every artist has to be allowed to go off the deep end at least once.  Perhaps next time cooler heads will prevail and Jackson’s ambition will be prepared to serve the genre and its virtues, rather than attempting to elevate it into the cinematic stratosphere and thus, reducing it to banality.          

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Rabbi of Enlightened Despair

I’ve been working from time to time on a commentary to Sefer Kohelet, or the Book of Ecclesiastes as it is known in English. Here’s a piece from the beginning. I’ll probably finish it in another ten years, so enjoy. It’ll be awhile before it’s complete.

“The words of Kohelet, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” 1:1
Even here, at the beginning of the beginning, opinions differ and controversies flair. Rabbinical tradition dating back a millennium identifies Kohelet as King Solomon, the successor to King David as sovereign over the united kingdoms of Israel and Judah; and defines his lamentation as a song of mourning for the inevitable collapse of his kingdom at the hands of his feckless heirs, and the cruelties of age and infirmity. Modern scholarship, as is to be expected, disagrees; citing numerous philological, chronological, and religious contradictions with the traditional theory. I see no relevance to this controversy. It is the words of Kohelet themselves that arrest us, and force us to reckon with them. The voice is that of an old and tired man of power; a man who has tasted glory, power, virtue, pleasure, indulgence, and wisdom; and has found them all wanting. The name Kohelet itself means preacher, a communal parsonage, and we are about to be the subjects of a lengthy sermon of enlightened despair; one which has, in my view, yet to be surpassed. If a classic is a work which has no need of a translator, for it propels itself effortlessly into the tongue of another age and the discourse of another world; then we have before us a classic; and that, I think, ought to be enough.

“Vanity of vanities, says Kohelet, all is vanity.” 1:2
The first admonition is also the most horrendous, a condemnation of the world so profound its articulation appears hardly worthy of the apocalyptic sentiment within. Apocalyptic is the correct word, for it is not merely the world that is condemned; that omnipotent all condemns all; that which is the world and that which is beyond the world. Kohelet condemns God as he condemns himself, the living and the dead, the past and present, his world and all the worlds beyond; even the very words he writes and the act of our reading them; even the words I now write at this moment. Is such a totality of despair possible? Is there not some measure of mercy in those words? Perhaps. Vanity is, after all, not the deadliest of sins. The All, as Kohelet names it, is not evil, but merely vain; this is not the harshest of condemnations. But it does propose a banality to the world, a misapprehension of things on the part of he who beholds. As he will do many times more before he concludes, Kohelet is admonishing us to be heedful; to not shrink from our despair, from the overwhelming vanity of all, but rather to allow it to educate us.

“One generation passes away, and another generation comes: but the earth abides forever…The sun also rises and the sun sets…All rivers run to the sea, but the sea is never full; to the place where the rivers flow, there they shall return.” 1:4-7
Here Kohelet speaks of eternal things. This passage is hardly impious, it contains none of the heretical implications we will soon encounter; it speaks in the unmistakable tongue of the Judaic nature of this discourse; to the apprehension of certain absolute principles, to the essential forces of life, whose movement is the movement of a consciousness beyond forms. An other-consciousness in the absolute sense. He cites a singular dynamic, that of going and returning, a circular capillary, as the movement of blood through flesh or thoughts through the mind; a dynamic which by its nature can never be fulfilled or resolved. The unbreakable fiber of life; both physical and metaphysical, which has ever been the unique preoccupation of the great Judaic thinkers. As God in the Jewish consciousness cannot be fulfilled or resolved, as he is the absolute One, the utterly singular; so can the sea never be filled, or the sun cease its rotations; for they too are one in their elementary principles; manifestations of the eternal, forever outgoing and forever returning in equal measure, beyond consummation.
In this, Kohelet is also signaling the nature of his dissertation; this is no dialogue, but a statement of immutables. No proofs are required, nor are they relevant; one needs no proofs of the fullness of the sea, for the sea is never full; nor for the passing of the generations, for they have already passed and will pass again. The question at hand is not that of truth, but rather what the unknowable and unfullfillable may have to teach us.

“All things are full of weariness.” 1:8
In full force appears before us the voice of an old man. As the body wearies, so does all that one perceives as one perceives it in weariness. Sights becomes familiar, sounds no longer shock or surprise or excite, the young commit the same errors, the foolish still understand nothing, evil continues its crimes, and good remains forever less than victorious. The workings of the world take on the aspect of the pedantic, an emotionless ritual endlessly enacted; the wind and the rain, the changes of the season, the rising of the sun, all come to seem mere formalities, markings of time behind which gather the approaching shadows. It must not be forgotten that we are reading the testimony of a man facing death, and not as an amorphous concept, the object of metaphysical speculations, but an ominous reality, and this is the source of its ferocity and its insight; and when the stakes are mortal, the smallest of banalities and infirmities of one’s fellow man becomes offensive, incomprehensible, and, of course, vain.

“Man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing; nor the ear filled with hearing.” 1:8-9
As the shadows gather, the unanswerable questions loom ever larger. This passage speaks of perception, and we may direct ourselves accordingly along two paths, that of the interior and the exterior; which intertwine throughout this brief narrative until they are nearly impossible to separate. For Kohelet speaks both of himself and man; man as a principle and an essence. It is both he who is incapable of comprehension and his fellows who are incapable of comprehending him, and of comprehending the impossibility of that very comprehension. His is the dilemma of a man who sees farther than others, but not far enough to satisfy his need for knowledge of infinite things; for he is soon to enter, himself, into the infinite.

“That which has been will be again…and there is nothing new under the sun.” 1:9-10
This is without doubt Kohelet’s most profoundly conservative statement; he expands his previous musings into the totality of a worldview: all things are eternal, all things return unto themselves; there is no progression, no advance, and no uniqueness. All things shall keep as they are. This is an ancient way of seeing things, both personally and historically. Only the old are privileged to recognize the patterns inherent in events; for only they have the distance required to form the mosaic out of that which initially seems random and chaos, without form and void. In historical terms, it is a pointed rebuke to the modern conceit of progress; that all events hurtle forwards towards their perfection. Against this, Kohelet posits a pastoral mechanism; but it is not static, things are done, things become and are in the process of becoming; but it is their dynamism to ever return to themselves, a concept most indelibly expressed in the ancient symbol of the snake forever swallowing his own tail.

“There is no remembrance of former things.” 1:11
The next pharaoh will not know Joseph. Each generation witnesses its first dawn, believes that the sun has risen for the first time, and for him alone; and the night that follows seems to herald eternal darkness. Kohelet perceives that the folly, or vanity, of man is that he does not learn, which is to say that he does not remember. As memory fails, so does the eternal, and with it life itself is irretrievably lost; as the memory of comprehension dies, that which was comprehended returns to mystery. And again, we hear the voice of a dying man. For he knows that he too will soon be a memory, and thus forgotten. Though the very resonance of his words seems a contradiction to this principle; we cannot know whether, in ages yet to come, Kohelet’s prophecy may not be fulfilled. Words, like men, are transient.
This despair is of the profoundest kind, for Kohelet believes knowledge is possible; yet he knows as well that it cannot be eternal; and thus is alien to the primary forces of the world. This is the despair of a man who sees, and in seeing knows that the image will never, can never return, but is nothing more than what Melville called the phantom of life; and in an instant, it returns unto itself.

“I, Kohelet, was king over Israel in Jerusalem.” 1:12-13
Was. Is he king no more? Does he write in anticipation of the inevitable? Is he engraving his own epitaph? There is no answer inherent to such demands for literal explanation; but we can draw deeper from these words, for they express the very essence of the text before us; it is the lament of a lost king. And what is a lost king? It is a man who is fallen, humbled, disgraced, perhaps; but also wise; because he has stood higher and fallen farther than the entirety of his fellow man. Even among his own rarified brethren he is ascendant, an over-king; because all kings know what it is to reign, but only the few know what it is to fall. Kohelet speaks from the heights and from the depths; and he does so as the man who knows. It is in his fall, he seems to tell us, in the loss, in the memory, that his wisdom was to be found. In his remembrance, he has become wise. And can this be denied? Not all who remember are wise; but all who are wise remember.

“I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom…it is a sore task that God has given…and, behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” 1:13-15
The thirteenth verse, a lucky number in the Jewish tradition. And we are presented with another lament; this time of sacrifice: “I gave my heart…” What more can a king give? Or a man? On the plane of wisdom, the king and the man are one and equal. But what comes of such egalitarian strivings? Nothing, again, but vanity. And so we hear for the first time Kohelet’s mantra of despair: the striving after wind. What is the man (or king) who strives after the wind? He is a man who reaches out for nothingness, who grasps for form but finds only air; a man who questions and hears only silence in return.
And yet, these are no mere strivings. It is a sore task, a labor bestowed by God (this is the first time the name of the Almighty is inscribed; and the omnipotent will remain a tangential yet constant watcher over these proceedings), man is driven, commanded, upon his quest; and condemned as well, because there is no destination, it is a path without an end; and again we are brought struggling to the transience of man; for all rivers run to the sea, but the man runs nowhere, grasping after the intangible air.
There is a warning here: one cannot seek and search out by wisdom; wisdom as a means is only vanity. Kohelet in his warning points us again towards eternal things. Wisdom separates, analyzes, deconstructs; but that which it seeks to know cannot be separated. Kohelet stands here for the Judaic against the Greek; against the methodology which proposes knowledge through dismemberment. One cannot reduce; one must bear witness. Intellectual violence is vanity, there is only apprehension.

“That which is crooked cannot be made straight.” 1:15
Again we see Kohelet’s conservatism at work. The world is as it is; as it will ever be. Crooked and straight, beautiful and ugly, just and unjust; will remain as they are. It is vanity to seek to change the world; and it is a tragic vanity, because it is doomed to failure. The world will remain perfect in its imperfection.
For all its conservatism, this is a profoundly radical statement, bordering on the heretical; anticipating by a thousand years and more the Kabbalists’ vision of a broken world created. Kohelet does not question God, nor does he question his creation; and yet…

“I spoke to my own heart.” 1:16
This text is an interior dialogue more than it is a testimony. Its contradictions, paradoxes, and aphorisms do not bespeak a formal oration; but rather the musings of a single heart. It is for this reason that I tend to regard this text as the work of a single author. Most scholars interpret the irreconcilables of the text as proof of a synthesis of several works and several authors. I take the opposite view. Were this text subject to substantial editing, it would have been strategically whittled down to the point of absolute clarity. It is the very chaos of this text, its impossible contradictions, which bespeak the work of a single man. We are not reading an edited amalgam. We are reading one man’s painful interrogation of the forces at work within. We must not seek consistency or certainly, nor resolution; for no such things exist in the heart of an honest man. This text does not educate by discourse, but by empathy.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Rethinking The Godfather Part III

I saw The Godfather, Part III on TV last night, and I think its actually a much better film than I remember. It’s certainly flawed (though I think The Godfather, Part II is not without its problems, despite its formidable reputation) but I think it does hold its own with the other two films. The film is not a classic, but it is quite fascinating in its own right; and both similar to and different from the other films in some fairly interesting ways. Most of all, the central idea behind the film is a stroke of genius. Using the Vatican Bank scandals of the 1970s as the primary background for the film’s plot allows Francis Ford Coppola to make a brilliant point on the subject of corruption. In my opinion, all of the Godfather films are essentially about corruption, both personal and political corruption. Michael Corleone is, after all, nothing more than a once-good man who makes a bargain with the devil in exchange for worldly riches and power. He gains the world and loses his soul. In this film, Coppola is making the point that everyone is corrupted, even the personification of spirituality in the Catholic Church. The briefly seen character of Luchese, the sinister politician-financier who sits behind his desk in horn-rimmed glasses and proclaims that he who builds on the people builds on mud, may be the most evil and terrifying character in all the Godfather films; and he is also one of the most legitimate in terms of the broader society. The doomed Pope (Raf Vallone is extraordinary in the role) who seems to be the only truly good man in the film, underscores this point wonderfully, he may be the only truly pure character in the entire Godfather saga, and, of course, his fate is sealed from the beginning.

Seeing the film ten years later also seems to minimize the flaws that were most obviously glaring when it came out. The absence of Robert Duvall didn’t strike me as particularly significant this time around, and Sofia Coppola’s performance, while certainly not spectacular, gets the job done. She’s supposed to be an innocent and naïve child who has no idea of the dangers of the world she lives in, and that comes across pretty well. She has a few clunky lines, but its not an existentially disastrous performance. For some reason, the passage of time has also enhanced the good things in the film; particularly, Andy Garcia’s performance as the alternately ruthless and romantic Vincent. Somehow, Garcia manages to pull off a character who can be both an amoral killer and an innocent boy who has lost his heart to the wrong woman, and manages to make both sides believable. The best thing in the film, however, is undoubtedly Talia Shire’s role of Connie Corleone, who has turned from a powerless abused wife and widow to a Lady Macbeth of formidable destructive capabilities. Her final moment, in which she dons a black cloak in the face of a senseless and terrible tragedy, is a truly haunting image. Coppola and Mario Puzo really hit on something when they decided to take what was a relatively minor and pitiful character in the other two films and turn her into a vengeful angel of death.

Coppola himself pointed to Shakespeare as one of the inspirations for Part III, and there is certainly a sense of inevitable and meaningless tragedy around the film. King Lear was undoubtedly on the writers’ minds when they were concocting this final chapter. I think this may go a long way to explaining the real reason why this film was so disliked when it came out. Put simply, it’s a massive downer. The other two Godfather films, however dark they were, nonetheless end with some kind of victory for Michael Corleone, however high the price may be. Part III, however, ends in total desolation and wretchedness. Like Lear, Michael is left with nothing at the end of this film. Quite literally everything he has valued in his life, even the corrupting force of worldly power and achievement, has been wiped out by fate and, it is implied, the vengeance of God. Coppola refuses to let his main character off the hook, and in this sense, Part III may be the most morally sure of all three films. Sooner or later, Coppola seems to be saying, we all pay for our sins. This is a conclusion which is only hinted at in the other two films, and there is no doubt that it both elevates this flawed epilogue and makes its final moments extraordinarily difficult to watch. It may be this, Coppola’s refusal to grant the audience the satisfaction of still believing that, somehow, crime does pay, that ultimately gave this film its undeservedly bad reputation.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Celebrity Kabbalah

There's just all kinds of problems with this:
According to Fox News online columnist Roger Friedman, Madonna's upcoming album, "Confessions on a Dance Floor," includes a paean to 16th-century modern Kabbalah founder Isaac Luria. Titled "Isaac," the song features a spoken interlude by Yitzhak Sinwani of London's Kabbalah Centre.
Putting aside the fact that Yitzhak Luria was not the "founder" of the Kabbalah - the primary text of the Kabbalah, the Book of the Zohar, was written at the end of the 14th century, though it is traditionally attributed to Shimon Bar-Yochai, a rabbi who lived in the first century AD - I can't imagine that an artist as shallow as Madonna would dare grapple with the actual nature of his theology. Luria created an extraordinarily dark vision of the world which essentially amounted to the rejection of reality itself in the name of a mystical transcendance which would dissolve the material world into the divine. In Lurianic Kabbalah the physical world is the result of a deformation, a breakage in the divine system that occured in the very moment of Creation. Its a despairing and extraordinary theology that deserves better than a dance number as its tribute. I also can't imagine a rabbi such as Luria regarding the modern day celebrity worship upon which Madonna thrives as anything other than a modern form of idolatry. On the other hand, if this dumbed-down "Kabbalah" makes people less hostile towards Jews and Judaism I suppose it can't do any harm, but it does speak to the seemingly unstoppable modern trend of turning everything - human beings and religions alike - into a shallow, easily digestible shadow of its true self. Personally, I wish Madonna and the rest would stick with nonsense like Scientology and leave something as beautiful and complex as the Kabbalah alone.

Friday, October 07, 2005

A Wonderful Quote

For the burning bush was a symbol of the oppressed people, and the burning fire was a symbol of the oppressors; and the circumstance of the burning bush not being consumed was an emblem of the fact that the people thus oppressed would not be destroyed by those who were attacking them, but that their hostility would be unsuccessful and fruitless to the one party, and the fact of their being plotted against would fail to be injurious to the others. The angel, again, was the emblem of the providence of God, who mitigates circumstances which appear very formidable, so as to produce from them great tranquillity beyond the hopes or expectation of any one.

But we must now accurately investigate the comparison here made. The briar, as has been already said, is a most weak and supple plant, yet it is not without thorns, so that it wounds one if one only touches it. Nor was it consumed by fire, which is naturally destructive, but on the contrary it was preserved by it, and in addition to not being consumed, it continued just as it was before, and without undergoing any change whatever itself, acquired additional brilliancy. All these circumstances are an allegory to intimate the suggestions given by the other notions which at that time prevailed, almost crying out in plain words to persons in affliction, "Do not faint; your weakness is your strength, which shall pierce and wound innumerable hosts. You shall be saved rather than destroyed, by those who are desirous to destroy your whole race against their will, so that you shall not be overwhelmed by the evils with which they will afflict you, but when your enemies think most surely that they are destroying you, then you shall most brilliantly shine out in glory." Again, the fire, which is a destructive essence, convicting the men of cruel dispositions, says, Be not elated so as to rely on your own strength; be admonished rather when you see irresistible powers destroyed. The consuming power of flame is itself consumed like firewood, and the wood, which is by its intrinsic nature capable of being burnt, burns other things visibly like fire.

-Philo of Alexandria

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Some Reflections on Judaism

These are just some musings I've written down over time on Judaism and Jewish philosophy and history. I hope you find my little jottings somewhat interesting. I'm planning to continue adding to it over time. Enjoy.

What terrifies the Jew today is not fear, but knowledge. The weight of the realization of our past. The past which tells us that the unimaginable horror does not exist. Horror is now imaginable, and thus possible; if we do not resist it. This is not paranoia, bit its opposite. Paranoia is terror of the void, and the fashioning of monsters to fill it. The Jewish people fears what we know; the terrible immediate of which we alone have the most intimate knowledge. That is; the living possibility of collective non-existence.

The legions who laid waste to Judea merely enacted the first in a series of descents. As Spain was a fall, so was Kishinev, so was Damascus, so was Auschwitz, so was the lie of Jenin. As each of these temples becomes an inferno; so does the return to Zion strengthen in its inevitability; because Zion cannot fall, for it as much ether as it is flesh.

The Jewish civilization conceives an identity between thought, action, and existence. It rejects dichotomy between the ephemeral and the tangible. God, Elohim, the all-consciousness, announces himself by the word, the word that is the name of his existence, “I am that I am.” Word and conciousness bear the name of action. The thought, the dream, the idea, is the real; real as the flame which does not consume; by right of the force of its being. The Jewish God is the indivisible principle, the absolute existent, the nexus of truth, justice, compassion…the wellspring of the divisions of man. To be, for the Jew, is an act of will, a divine enunciation, and; as Levinas has written; a divine apprehension as well.

The desire to escape the weight of history is understandable; if ultimately doomed. The labors and the sufferings which have constructed this labyrinth will be; either they will be weapons or they will be ghosts. To shrink from them is to be devoured forever.

Moses, so says the legend, became a prophet of God because of his kindness to an animal. This is of the utmost importance. An animal, like the slave, has no will; or he is at least helpless to effect his will. As such, he is simultaneously debased and innocent. It is this which makes his bondage perpetual. Moses, as an exiled murderer, was not innocent. He had destroyed life. God’s choice of Moses lies in this dichotomy between Moses’ compassion and his guilt. Because of his corruption, he could not be enslaved. Yet his compassion proved that his corruption had not made him a tyrant. Only the corrupted and compassionate together could face Pharoah; because no punishment a tyrant can devise weighs heavier than the compassionate man’s knowledge of his sin; and no temptation of power could be greater than that which Moses had already overcome in the face of innocence.

It is neither radical nor unreasonable to read Jewish history as a continuing struggle with the gentile world. Nor should this be viewed as a chauvinistic or contemptuous approach. Admiration, apprehension, collaboration, fascination, and the creative are equal expression of the dialectic of struggle; equal at least to violence and contempt. The dialectic of struggle merely accepts the undeniability of otherness to an understanding of Jewish history. There is no shame in this, merely the fact of a distinct and singular existence and thus a distinct and singular history.

Resistance to this principle lies in the fact of metaphysical dispossession; the dispossession of the Jewish metaphysic which is the foundation of Christianity, Islam, and the secular civilization to which they have given birth. The struggle of the heirs against the original creator (or recipient, for those of a religious bent) lies in their imperialization of a particular God and his particular revelation.

The Jewish and Hellenic civilizations were and are destined for perpetual conflict. Together, they mark the poles of human metaphysics. The Greeks conceived of truth as the end of a process, an essence reached by man through an analytical process. Judaism posed that man himself was the product of truth. Truth and man are one in the Jewish metaphysic. These two forces, the Hellenic and the Jewish, the reductive and the expansive, are as irreconcilable as they are essential. Their contention is the core of man’s conflict with his unknowable world.

The gods of the Greeks cannot and do not declare “I am that I am”, the cogito of divinity. Mere being is insufficient to satisfy these anthromorphs. They must personify. Personify forces other and separate from themselves; the rain, sea, lightning, storm…The gods of the Greeks are dualistic in their essence, their power arises from separation. There can be no Jewish Prometheus to steal fire from God; for where would he find him? The Jewish God is but himself; the unknown inseperable who is, as the Hasidim say, wherever you let him in.

The Jewish civilization stands against the banal. It cleaves to the primal forces of life; the indivisible seed. Kohelet, the despairing king, declares that even hedonism must be undertaken with knowledge; the immutable knowledge that man is but a shadow, and his end is ashes. The rejection of life, of the earth, of flesh, is nowhere to be found in Judaism. But the acceptance but also be an apprehension. It must be undertaken with eyes wide open. One must act, and act with knowledge; in the acceptance, the action, and the apprehension lies a truth. It is the charge of Judaism to look upon the world, and to neither blink nor waver.

Any study of Jewish history must forego the formal tools of the profession. Judaism’s battles are fought in dreams. Its warriors stalk an amorphous realm. Its upheavals and its lie between words; its triumphs in the rabbi’s conquest of death through his dialogue with those who will one day read; in the ascension of his words beyond his brief mortality.

We may read Kohelet as the first and greatest of the existentialists; the first prophet of enlightened despair. For him, even the existence of God cannot comfort; and yet he does not turn away.

The Jew cannot be satisfied with still waters. We are charged to seek out depths; and blood and fire with them.

To live as a Jew is to live a mosaic existence. To live as warrior, as weaver, as king, as rabbi, as slave, as prophet; to be the wise child and the child who does not know.

Judaism exists as a labyrinth of signs. They state and imply, they are direct and oblique, they reject and embrace, they howl and they whisper; they encompass worlds.

The legend of Abraham, the first Jew, the son of an idol maker, marks Judaism as an act of metaphysical revolt. Its origins lie in rebellion against the hypocrisy of a world which hallowed the worship of stone; and thus of death. Judaism rejected the idolatry of the inanimate in the name of that which existed beyond manifestations; that which was the seed of manifestation itself. Two millennia before Descartes, it thought and it was.

When we speak of Judaism we are not speaking of a single Judaism, a single phenomenon, we are speaking of a multitude, a series of Judaisms; which exist both as a progression and in a series of simultaneous paradoxes; intertwined and alien, the each to the other. The Rambam's Aristoltelian God stands in opposition to the furious systemic mysticism of the Kabbalists, and yet the latter is impossible without the former; as the Halachic isolation of the Orthodox stands hand in hand with the ecstatic God of joy and intoxication invoked by Hasidism. These too stand entangled with the godless Messianism of the Zionist movement, and even the numinous wastelands of Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin. Judaism cannot be understand as a catechism or a creed. It is not an ideology but a series of reflections; mirrors facing each other in an infinite corridor.

The widest tapestry, however, has its limits; even the infinite has its heresies. The Jewish civilization does not encompass all and does not seek to. Vertically, it is many; horizontally it is only one. Judaism exists upon this principle of the particular, or it is nothing at all.

It is in this particularism that Judaism offends modern religous and secular universalism, whose heart is the elimination of all distinctions. Judaism stands on the first distinction; between the sacred and the profane. Even time, the fundamental movement, matter itself in action, is divided between the six days of toil and the Sabbath. In its capacity for judgement, for apprehension and discernment, Judaism is the antithesis of modern nihilism. Hillel says do not jusge a man until you have been in his place; but he does not say do not judge him. For those who believe everything sacred and simultaneously profane; such a creed can never be anything but an enemy.

The line between madness and the ecstacy of the religious trance is not as thin as some believe. Insanity is the embrace of dissonance; the annhilation of the essence of all forms. For the mystic, form merely speaks a deeper essence. He is guided.

The Midrash speaks of a thrice created world; once on the principle of mercy alone, and one on the principle of justice alone. Neither world could stand. It was only the third manifestation, of both justice and mercy, which could sustain itself. In Judaism, mercy cannot exist without justice, nor justice without mercy. In this paradox, we percieve the paths of its children; Christianity, with its adoration of mercy, and Islam, with its fetish of divine justice. Both have sought to destroy the synthesis which alone gave birth to the world.

If there is to be a way out of the human impasse, a way up from the emptiness of modern paganism, it may lie in the first rebellion; Abraham's revolt against the tyranny of forms.

Zionism is not nationalism or secular messianism per se, although it encompasses both. The truth is best expressed in Walter Benjamin's musing on the Angel of History, an angel blasted backwards into the future by the force of the catastrophe, an angel whose one desire is to return, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. This desire is Zionism.