Friday, September 01, 2006

Drama and Narrative

A colleague complains how little people and professors understand the dramatics of politics, especially world politics. He insists that leaders are frequently trying to enact their favorite stories in imaginative spaces they try to recreate in reality. The Bard knew something when he had Jacques declaim “All the world’s a stage…” And perhaps our only comfort when tyros and tyrants seize that stage is the knowledge they too will sink into me oblivion, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

Given the impulse of leaders and their followers to pose heroically and preen, I feel that realist theories of international relations miss a lot of what goes on the world’s stage, at least at the descriptive level. I would like to believe that groups of people combine into states to better compete against one another for scarce resources, including security, and tell themselves stories about past heroes and future idylls only to overcome their present fears. If that were the case, we folks might eventually create enough wealth and allocate it wisely enough to satisfy everyone. That of course was the dream of Freud, who wanted to get rid of surplus repression, and Marx, who wanted to get rid of surplus. But I can hear my son saying “boring” to such a reality and he is only eight. And even if the hero stories that motivate many people these days are a response economic despair and social dislocation, they rapidly acquire lives of their own. The attract those for whom the mundane or absurdity of life it too great a challenge.

A remarkable set of apocalyptic myths and imagined reenactments haunts today's Middle East. Gilles Kepel observes that the Sunni jihadists, from Bin Laden and Zawahiri down, imagine they are recreating the early days of Islam, when Muhammad took on the infidels to establish his faith. The Shiites, Nir Rosen explains, imagine they are experiencing and resisting the same injustice, personified in Yazid,that killed their hero Hussain. Today's Yazid is the United States and Israel. Some Shiites -- perhaps, including Iran's Ahmadinejad -- believe the struggle with this Yazid can hasten the advent of the Mahdi or Messiah. The Jewish settlers on the West Bank believe they are redeeming the patrimony of Abraham; some connect their struggles with the “birth pangs” of a Jewish Messiah. Jews throughout Israel believe they are reexperiencing the threat of Holocaust, but are determined it will come out different this time. The United States has a president who wants to be both a Christian soldier and Winston Churchill fighting an "Islamic fascism." Maybe he expects the Rapture to attend victory.

In such a world of Manichean dramas, where the sons of light and dark struggle, good writers are terribly needed. They have the courage to stare at other people and recall that those who puff themselves up to cosmic proportions also shrink and shuffle off the stage sans everything. Their view is not cynical, but perhaps the contrary: a down-to-earth celebration of the shades, shapes, flavors and follies of humanity, devoid of metaphysics. After the dramas are played, they can write the narratives. The death this week of Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz reminds us how much the Middle East needs writers of his taste and courage. He looked long at the unraveling tapestry of Egyptian life and dared hope that education and science could repair it. The Islamists hated him for that.

So I am distressed at the ambivalence of A.B. Yehoshua, one of Israel’s best writers, about the appropriate narrative for the Israel-Hizbullah war. Soon after the beginning, he, Amos Oz and David Grossman, like many in the Israel left detected the transcendentally evil Iran behind Hizbullah’s provocation. In a message of support for the war, they feared a new Holocaust was in the making, proclaimed the war's just cause and voiced only minor concern about IDF’s disproportionate force. Ten days later, when the UN finally moved toward a cease fire, Yehoshua, Oz and Grossman about faced; they demanded that the government accept the proposed cease fire, instead of expanding ground operations. The government of course does not listen to writers. It expanded operations; tragically,Grossman’s own son was killed in that last phase of the war. Early this week, however, Yehoshua reversed himself again. He told a reporter that indeed the war was good and successful. Like many Israelis, he was surprised by Nasrallah’s confession of having miscalculated the size of the Israeli response. They took Nasrallah'sregret for this as a sign that Israel had reestablished, rather than diminished its deterrent power. Alas, this reading lacks the needed nuance that Nasrallah's statements warrant.

But it is unclear whether Yehoshua still thinks Israel was engaged in conflict against a transcendent evil. If he is, it would be a disappointing sign that the decades of conflict experienced have corroded his sensibilities. Yehoshua is typically social and historical, rarely metaphysical. His novels excavate the ordinary to discover below the extraordinary, macabre, sometimes even the Gothic, Middle Eastern style. He published, decades ago, a collection of essays that discusses Israel's mission as trying to build a floor over the abyss of the past, and called it For the Sake of Normalcy.

So is he now declaring a victory over evil or putting things into a more mundane perspective? Perhaps his latest narrative for the war is a strategic choice: “If we say we won and meanwhile get some diplomatic gains, there is no need to prove our military superiority in a second round. If we say we won, despite all the mistakes our leaders and generals made, the government will not fall and the extreme right will not come to power. Then maybe we can go back to trying to be normal.”


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