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Monday, 16 April 2012

‘Why did you do that?'

I am haunted by the story. I can’t let it go, or rather it won’t let me go. This is what literature can do to you sometimes, great literature – the kind that tries to speak about how life is, in all its complexity and mystery, in all its unexpected moments of joy and pain, of sudden reversals of fortune, life in its shabbiness and its grandeur, the life that poets and novelists keep evoking and describing – arranging and re-arranging words on pages in the attempt to pierce the mystery of our being, the mystery of there being anything at all: it is the poets and the storytellers that keep reminding us that what makes human beings a unique aspect of the created universe is our capacity for language, for words, for using speech to communicate and to try to conjure up new ways of talking about who we are, what we are, why we are...

And this story in Leviticus, these few verses of an ancient text, seem to speak of something just out of our grasp. We feel that if we could really understand what is going on we’d hold in our hands, in our hearts, we’d hold in our consciousness, a moment of enlightenment. It we understood this text it would be like a revelation, a holy moment. We’d know the truth of something, how something really is and not just how it seems. We’d somehow know how the world really works – if we could but understand this simple story.

“And Nadav and Abihu, sons of Aaron, each took a fire-pan, and fire, and incense, and offered ‘strange fire’ before the Eternal, which they had not been instructed to do. And fire came forth from before the Eternal and consumed them and they died before the Eternal. And Moses said to Aaron: ‘This is what the Eternal says, these words: Through those near to Me, I will be sanctified; and before all the people I will be honoured’. And Aaron was silent.” (Leviticus 10: 1-3)

Two young men offer aysh zara – strange fire, alien fire, something that is burning and out of the ordinary, something unexpected and unpredicted and out of the range of what is known, something that runs counter to the rules set down from on high, from their parents and their God. They are not feeling constrained by what has to be, what should be done, what shouldn’t be done - there is a rebelliousness in them, a zeal, an enthusiasm, a passion – they want to connect with the divine in their own way, but what is it really that motivates them? Is it attention-seeking? Is it a prank? Is it anger at being part of a system that always tells them what to do, that demands obedience, that is filled with prohibitions and punishments and threats of more punishments? Is it a premeditated act, plotted together in secret for ages before? Or is it a sudden impulsive moment of dare-devilry – ‘I’ll do it if you do it, no you do it, no you do it, hell, let’s just do it...’

Who knows? – our storyteller isn’t going to tell us. Our storyteller is going to keep us dangling – for generation after generation – our storyteller knows that when they place this word next to that word, in this order, and create this sentence then that one, that we are going to be captivated till the end of days with a curiosity, with a desire to know, to understand, to delve beneath the surface of this brutal and dumbfounding story, to find out: why did they do it? Which is to say: why do any of us do the things that we do? What is the story we tell ourselves, or each other? What is the story we told our parents, or our siblings, that we tell our partners, or our lovers, or our teachers , or our friends – or whoever wanted to know: ‘why did you do that? How could you have done that? Couldn’t you see what would happen? Why did you do it?’

And we might have a story ready, or we might make one up, or we might have no words to offer – but that question ‘why?’ can have a dozen answers, a dozen so-called reasons, but they are only stories, more stories: ‘I did it because I was angry, I did because I was bored, I did it because I was tired, I did it because I was upset, or hurt; I did it without thinking, I did it because I thought you’d like it, or you’d be pleased with me, or you would love me, or you would stop loving me if I didn’t do it, I did it because it felt good, I did it because no-one was looking, or everyone was looking’... stories we make up, stories we believe in (or not), that try to answer that simple-sounding question: why did you do that?

Two young men offer aysh zara – strange fire, alien fire, something that is burning in them and it has to come out. And fire symbolises both what is creative and transformative – and what is destructive. And when these two men in this story offer their strange fire, and fieriness, there is no explanation, because no explanation is ever sufficient - because we are strangers to ourselves, aliens who think we know why we act but rarely take into account that actions are often prompted by the unconscious in us. We think we are rational and conscious and coolly calculating beings – but this story reminds us that this is just a fiction, another story, one we like to tell ourselves, a soothing fairytale of a story: ‘Oh, I did this because of that’, as if we were a mathematical formula, x plus y = z. I did z because of x and y. ‘I left him because he snored and always left the toilet seat up’. ‘I married her because she had beautiful eyes, and a father who was a millionaire.’ What a consoling fiction this is, that human motivation can be tracked down in this simple way, as if the mind and the heart and consciousness itself is just a refined computer-type programme waiting for us to de-code, or load up with more programmes that we can then act out. But what this short story reveals is that we are essentially a mystery: to ourselves, let alone to other people.

There were plenty of things I could have addressed this week, other than this nagging mysterious story, the one that won’t let me go. What about the sinking of the Titanic, 100 years ago? What an extraordinary story this has become in the British psyche: it’s become mythic, a story about class, and fate, and hubris and arrogance and bravery and cowardice and the randomness of who will live and who will die, and how the story the makers of that ship told about it in 1912 - and the captain and crew and passengers believed - that this was a ship that was unsinkable, what a story that was, what a fiction that was, how naive to believe in the stories we tell ourselves about how things are and have to be.

Or I could have addressed what’s happened to another storyteller, the grand old man of German letters, Nobel laureate Gunter Grass, 84 years old, for whom reading and writing – the habit of looking intensely at words – became the work of a lifetime, and now he’s been banned from entering Israel, to which he has a strong and loving bond, because he wrote a poem – in truth, not a very good poem – a poem in which he spoke about both Iran and Israel as having the potential capacity to act in ways “endangering/Our already fragile world peace”. Following which rather uncontroversial sentiment ,a huge storm of controversy has erupted around him – with knee-jerk reactions from the predictable sources : that Grass has voiced “deep-seated prejudice against the Jewish people” (i.e. he’s an anti-Semite) – that’s from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in the States; and from Netanyahu a helpful, diplomatic response that Grass is just an unreconstructed Nazi because he was drafted into the Waffen SS at the age of 16 towards the end of the War, and we aren’t going to take moral lessons from Germans anyway.

The power of words – they can explode in your face – a storyteller poet can offer his own alien fire and the next thing you know the wrath of the gods (or those who set themselves up in God’s place) falls upon him.

The power of words, of stories, of language – and who the stories are told to, and where they are told. What about the Habima theatre company of Israel, founded in 1905 and Israel’s oldest theatre group, who are due to visit London in May but are facing a boycott campaign? They perform all over Israel and they’ve done some performances in Ariel, in the West Bank; they have sponsorship from the government of Israel and a contractual obligation to go, but no actor is forced to perform there if their conscience dictates not to, and actors who choose not to face no sanctions from the company. They are due to perform their Hebrew language version of The Merchant of Venice, at the Globe during the London Shakespeare Festival. And as another storyteller Howard Jacobson has said in defence of their visit: "If there is one justification for art… it is that it proceeds from, and addresses, our unaligned humanity. Whoever would go to art with a mind made up on any subject misses the point of what art is for”. (Though I note that Jacobson has remained silent, as far as I know, about Grass).

Which stories are we allowed to hear? which poems are we allowed to read? which words are too strange, too alien, too fiery, too filled with burning indignation, too dangerous, to be offered up on the altar, in full view of the public?

In Leviticus, the story is told that something is offered, strange, alien, of burning intensity – and it is followed by death, and more words, as Moses tries to rationalise what has happened: he offers his own story, which you can take or leave. (It’s what you’d expect from a religious leader, a bit of pious gobbledygook to cover up the outrageous unpredictability of what life throws at us).

But the most eloquent response, the most poignant, the most pregnant with meaning and feeling is that of Aaron, who is suddenly a survivor: a survivor of the unaccountable way in which life unfolds, bringing death in its wake; and he stands there, in the presence of the non-rational, the awesome irruption of chaos into the order of the day, vayidom Aharon : and Aaron was silent.

And there is a gap in the text, a moment of suspended action: as we wait, as we join Aaron in his silence. Sometimes there are no words. Sometimes there is a moment when we realise that words are a cover-up, that there is something unutterable about life, underneath words, between words, and our storyteller gives us a glimpse into that larger silence in which we are held, beyond language, from which we have come and into which we will go. And we stare - with Aaron, through Aaron - into the abyss. And we hear the silence. And it is heartbreaking, this silence.

And it is also, potentially, heart-mending, this silence.

But that’s another story.

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, April 14th, 2012]

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

On Demagogues and 'God': some Pesach thoughts

He thought people had witnessed “something miraculous” – in the biblical sense of the word. “As a religious man I have to believe that there is some divine intervention in this...something sacred. Justice has been done.”

No, not Moses after the exodus from Egypt, standing exhausted on the far shore of the Sea of Reeds in awe at how events had unfolded, some combination of nature and the historical moment that would enter a people’s collective memory to become a legend told and re-told, elaborated upon, mythologised over the generations, each telling a re-collection of fragments of memory, each telling an elaboration, each telling adding weight and significance to that initial sense of freedom, freedom gained who knows how? who knows why? but freedom gained - and awaiting its narrators, its storytellers, its making-sense-of-it-all mythographers and poets...

No, this was Friday March 30th, in the early hours of the morning at the prosaic Richard Dunn Sports Centre in Bradford - and God’s intervention is claimed with a raucous and aggressive immediacy: “All praise to Allah!”, then the response, “Allah, Allah” - like a football chant - then the crowd-pleasing seduction of “Long live Iraq! Long live Palestine!”, and the jubilation spills out onto the streets as the ‘miracle’ is proclaimed. No, not Moses, but George.

George Galloway’s stunning bye-election victory has received a fair amount of media coverage. His capacity to tap into local issues to do with poverty and unemployment, and the local disaffection about the system of political patronage that seems to dominate Bradford politics, were part of his appeal. But stirring up racial and religious tensions and utilising his reputation as an opponent of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan came in handy too – as did the literature from his ironically-named ‘Respect Party’ that claimed that this Scottish Catholic was more of an adherent to Muslim principles than his Muslim Labour opponent: “God KNOWS who is Muslim. And he KNOWS who is not. Instinctively, so do you. [So you the voter, and I, George Galloway, are ‘instinctively’ in the same camp as God]...I, George Galloway, do not drink alcohol and never have. Ask yourself if the other candidate can say that truthfully...”

Although there are rumours that Galloway has in fact converted to Islam – he does seem to have a polygamous series of wives married in Muslim ceremonies – there’s no doubt he’s found a useful campaign strategy here: align yourself with God and smear your opponent as less religiously devout than you are. Galloway’s whole sickening mis-appropriation of the language and principles of religion – and particularly his megalomaniacal, self-deluding claim that his success was due to ‘divine intervention’ – seems to me an extraordinarily disturbing event in British politics. The media coverage seems to have passed over in silence these claims about the ‘sacred’ nature of the event. Perhaps they are more interested in the political dimensions of the election – or perhaps, not confident enough to judge a person’s theology, they see this language as just part of Galloway’s idiosyncratic personality. But I think we should pay a bit more attention to what’s going on here.

In The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoevsky put into the mouth of his character Karamazov the view – now much-quoted, and much-disputed – that “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted”. But it seems to me that the opposite is as relevant, and perhaps more dangerous. For we have seen on countless occasions that once you claim to have God on your side, then anything is permitted: whether it is the Crusades or the occupation of ‘holy’ land, honour killings or the burning of heretics, the suppression of women or beating the devil out of children, too-readily knowing what ‘God’ wants can lead to mayhem, cruelty and murder.

In the mouth of a demagogue like Galloway, the phrase “All praise to Allah” carries a vicious and frightening undertone. Galloway has paid court to some modern pharoahs, dictators like Sadaam Hussein and Syria’s Bashar al Assad – they offer him an image of his own perverse ruthlessness, so no wonder he finds himself in thrall to their power-hungry personalities – and this co-opting of Muslim religious language is his latest ploy in grabbing power for himself.

So as Pesach (Passover) approaches, I find myself reflecting on how we can liberate the language of ‘God’ and the ‘sacred’ and ‘divine intervention’ from those who cynically co-op it for their own selfish and egotistical needs. The Haggadah text famously downplays the role of Moses in the extra-ordinary Exodus events it describes: Moses only gets a glancing mention within the traditional ‘Grace after Meals’ – he is completely absent from the first half of the seder, where the people’s journey from slavery to freedom is described and celebrated.

This of course runs counter to the Biblical narrative itself, where Moses’ hesitant-but-crucial leadership is highlighted within the story. But on seder night it is as if the anonymous compilers of the liturgy are making a discrete bid to de-legitimize any cult of personality. ‘Our story of salvation’, they seem to be saying, ‘is a story without a human Saviour’ – so our story is unlike that of Christianity, for example, the rival faith one feels they must have had in mind as they assembled the elements of the Jewish salvation story.

Freedom happens, they suggest, because there is a salvific force that enters into human events, perhaps when people least expect it. It comes, this force, with a power and an authority that sweeps people up in its force field, sweeps people along with what gradually – or suddenly – is experienced as a force of inevitability, unsettling the status quo, and reversing the prevailing dynamics of power.

Later on we might call it - our bards and poets might hymn it as - ‘God’s divine intervention’. Though at the time it was a mad scramble for survival and escape and taking the chance that came, the chaos of events, the lack of time to think, not even enough time to bake a loaf of bread, just the rising up in one’s spleen of the will to break free, the opportunism of the moment, when the society was reeling from one damned thing after another and death was all around and the powers-that-be were mourning their losses, and the wild-eyed visionary stuttering one and his shadowy, smooth-tongued brother said Now is the Time, the End-Time, ‘Let’s go, my people’ – though we might have got the words wrong in the confusion of the hour – but something stirred in our souls and we realised that we were not yet crushed unto death, our hearts were beating, still beating with the pulse of justice and the knowledge of injustices done and suffered, and we took our unleavened cakes of dough and at midnight – or thereabouts – we left our homes and our slave-lives and our Egyptian overlords, and broke free of our humiliation and broke free of our slavery to ‘it can’t be done’ and ‘it can never happen’, we broke free of our despair and our hopelessness, and some ancient spirit of defiance and hope breathed itself into our nostrils, we discovered again an animating energy we had forgotten we ever possessed, we found new life, like a grace flowing in our veins, and before we knew it we were away, away from there, on the journey, the truly immense journey, the journey we still are on.

And call it ‘divine intervention’ if you like.