Buffoonery is almost an extended phenotype of dictators, and in times and places in which seriousness, judiciousness, and integrity reign, the buffoon assumes his rightful place near the bottom of the social order, ranting on street corners or sending out misspelled newsletters. It is not the buffoon who should be feared, but the social conditions that permit him to rise above the ridicule that is his natural state. Can one speak of physiognomy here? It doesn’t seem a coincidence to me that Trump, like Franco, like Hitler, is a flaccid, wimpy man with little hands and a grating voice. After Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” moment, the saggy sycophant Nigel Farage, whose constantly gaping mouth recalls one of those plastic coin purses you squeeze to get open, called Trump’s words “typical alpha-male boasting.” Who but goons like Farage or Giuliani could bestow such a title on an erectile-challenged flesh-sack in badly tailored suits whose greatest pleasure is eating Hershey bars in the dark?
It smacks of, but isn’t, hyperbole to say that the popularity of Trump has answered definitively the question of how authoritarianism happens. Strangely, the sight of the real thing renders obsolete the numerous, often ingenious models put forth by thinks as varied as Hannah Arendt and Walter Lacqueur – not because their conclusions are incorrect, but the idea that an explanatory model is needed is fallacious. For much of the population, abjection is inherently pleasurable, and prevarication indistinguishable from truth. The abstention from immediate judgment, the search for right, the broader questions of human destiny that involve the need to understand, listen, compromise, and forgive –– everything, in short, implied in wisdom and conscience –– is an annoyance, and in some way profoundly alien to most people’s natural condition.
This has been on my mind frequently in recent years as I have watched the European and American left stagger from failure to failure. Is it possible that the values of the left simply do not possess the same robust appeal as those of the right, particularly of the extreme right? It has been said many times, with reference to Trump’s unforeseen triumph in the primaries, that the Republican party thought its base cared about fiscal conservatism, low taxes for the wealthy, open markets, and all the rest, when in fact, what drove them all along was racism, xenophobia, and hatred of government. If Klaus Theweleit is right, and fascism must be understood in part as an erotic phenomenon, then the apparent irrationality on the part of the Trump voter in his full-throated advocacy of a farrago of half-baked “positions” that change by the day and range from the impracticable to the impossible must be dismissed as irrelevant: what matters is the feeling of being with Trump, the highly pleasurable relinquishment of intellectual responsibility and the submission to a messianic illusion of a return to “greatness,” the precise definition of which is ever elusive.
In ‘The Stars Down to Earth’, Adorno analyzes the resort to astrology as a response to the generalized inability to comprehend the real economic and political forces determining the conditions of life. Since the time of its writing, the knowledge demands of conscientiousness have grown incalculably while esteem for intellectual and humanistic values has plummeted. As a result, events such as the 2008 economic crash, the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, or the relation between free trade and prosperity are submitted to the judgment of people ignorant of the criteria distinguishing fact from belief. To proffer a few statistics about Trump supporters:
66% believe Obama is a Muslim, and 61% believe he was born outside the United States.
40% believe Ted Cruz was born in the United States, though it is a matter of public record that Cruz is from Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
54% believe whites suffer more racism than blacks, while only 19% believe that blacks suffer more racism than whites.
This list could be extended ad nauseam. But it is unfair to cast the blame on Trump’s followers alone, as though they were the benighted, Duck Dynasty-watching, Oxycontin chewing underbelly of an otherwise well-informed society. 73% of Americans cannot correctly state the aims of the Cold War; 30% can’t place the Pacific Ocean on a map; 40% believe God created the earth and man fewer than 6,000 years ago; and only around 17% have the necessary literacy skills to correctly read and interpret a bus schedule. The percentage of Americans who report not having read a single book in the past year has quadrupled over the past four decades, and only 28% have read ten or more. One shudders recollecting that Twilight and The Art of the Deal are also books, and may therefore count toward the attainment of this milestone of virtue.
In this situation, the will of the people impends not upon the real contents of political reality, but upon the hyper-simplistic daydreams of the ill- and uninformed, who have made politics into a folk religion whose Bible is filled with stories of September 11, Welfare Queens, Benghazi, and the War Against Christmas.
The idea, if not the reality, has long been that at some point, an educated left would find the Rosetta Stone that would allow it to minister to the masses in a language they could understand, piercing the veil of ignorance and manipulation, exposing false consciousness, bringing together the workers and the intellectuals, etc. But of that small portion of the left not swallowed whole by neoliberalism, the greater part seems to have confused political action with “taking a stand,” particularly on social media platforms that can track these simulacra of rebellion for the sake of better curated “ad content”; and far-reaching concerns about global justice and oppression have crumbled in the face of recondite disquisitions on the arcana of identity politics and thinkpieces about the racism of Vice Principals.
In his diaries, Gombrowicz observes that for all their prattling on about workers, liberals’ true heritage is the nobility, and this is more and more evident to me every time I return to the States. The anger, resentment, hatred, and nihilism that fuel the authoritarian right (a term I use freely because, just today, the hardly un-representative Republican governor of Maine, Paul LePage, has declared, “We need a Donald Trump to show authoritarian power”) have, for many of my left-leaning acquaintances, the inevitability of climatological trends: as they drink craft cocktails or flat whites or stand in line for the best ramen or whatever gastronomical trifle is now the rage, they may hear the murmurs of the barbarians in Slidell, Peachtree City, or Benton, but these people are as strange to them as residents of another planet.
My mother is a nurse who for a time worked in home health care in the marrow of Trump country. Her patients were poor white pillheads who lived off public relief and only left the “holler” once or twice a year. One day, while my mother was changing out a tracheostomy tube or something similarly exquisite, the family matriarch turned to her and said, “Did they ever catch that man what shot Kennedy?” It is not shocking that people like this know nothing about the world –– what use might such knowledge be to them? Whether they descended from farmers, whose livelihood was ravaged by agribusiness, or from steelworkers in the many mills in the nearby city, the last of which closed in the 90s, at some point they were expelled from an economic order that is unlikely to invite them back in. Perhaps the Mexicans, who only appeared in the last twenty years, didn’t “take” their jobs; but the Mexicans have jobs, they don’t, and it would stand to reason that if the Mexicans weren’t there, those jobs could be theirs. It may also be true that “objectively,” black Americans continue to suffer grotesque economic inequality; but access to “objective reality,” which is in fact a kind of consensus, requires a cultural fluency rooted in a system of customs and privileges that millions of people find profoundly alien.
Ignorance in itself is not incompatible with democracy, so long as a society is sufficiently unified as to make common interest a reality. This was possible, perhaps, in America until the interests of capital diverged from those of the nation, and “a rising tide lifts all boats” yielded to the temptations of the virtue of selfishness. Theoretically, a strong left might have opposed these developments, but as Steinbeck remarked, the poor in America have always conceived of themselves as temporarily embarrassed capitalists, and true progressive ideals have never held much sway there. Now, the two halves of the country Lincoln yoked together by force are once more coming asunder, and the Democrats have stuck their heads in the sand while Republicans have fanned the flames. At present, only 29% of Americans believe an armed revolt may be necessary in upcoming years to stave off government tyranny, with another 20% undecided on the matter –– presumably, Trump will draw support from many of these voters, and thankfully, there are not enough of them for him to win. But the mere presence of such a figure on the world stage is terrifying, and there is no sign of political will on either side of the aisle to repair the ideological rifts that made his ascension possible.
One in five CEO’s have high levels of psychopathic traits! It is a common headline. Bankers have no empathy, are greedy narcissists or egomaniacs. But such vilification misses some important, perhaps uncomfortable, subtleties and similarities. Considering that the laissez-faire finance industry is essentially a state-funded gambling racket where initiated gamblers can play to win with the money of others, such demonisation is understandable. But, how different are we to these Savile Row-suited silhouettes? We can take some general outlines of so-called corporate psychopathy in turn.
Narcissism first. Greed, egomania, attention seeking, vanity and a grandiose sense of self-worth seem apt descriptors for such Gordon Gekko types. But today we live in a world of normalised narcissism. Taking an unsolicited selfie to share with hundred or thousands of strangers is now a perfectly accepted public activity. Yet, in the late 90s and early 00s (before the dawn of ‘smartphones’) if I was to walk into a local pub and take photographs of myself I’d have garnered some strange looks – in that context I’d look, well, a little crazy, unhinged. I’d have appeared as narcissistic to the point of delusional. Today, however, such practice is normal, we don’t bat an eyelid. The same can be said for other aspects of social media. We don’t hesitate to share our organic, locally-sourced, dairy and gluten free lunch with hundreds of followers, or tweet that our train is late, or that it is raining where we are. Does the world need to see my avocado on toast? Of course! Just Do It. Because I’m Worth It. How self-centred, how utterly narcissistic, it is to share every opinion piece we look at (or even read) with the hundreds of follows we have? The term, narcissism of questionable validity today – because distinguishing narcissism from normalcy is like slicing fog. We are way past what Tom Wolfe called ‘The Me Decade’.
Vanity is now accepted too. The rise of the metrosexual (whilst doing nothing for gender equality) opened out the worst forms of conscious and conspicuous vanity to heteronormative male culture. Creatine, moisturizer and fake-tan have partially usurped cigarettes ’n’ alcohol. Façade and appearance is sought instead of experience. This is symptomatic of the shift in the nature of working. In the industrial era, bodies were owned and put to work, whilst the mind went largely unused. Today however, we are stationary, in the open-plan-purgatory of contemporary decline-Britain. Our attentions and social exchanges are colonised by the requirements of work. We have little say over our cognitive and social-life, but we can take ownership of bodies. ‘The Man’ exploits our creativity, cognition and social-networking, but ‘pecs’ and ‘delts’ are within our vestige of control. Patrick Bateman’s (1980s) obsession with his physique, his vanity, is not abnormal by today’s selfie-snapping and protein-chugging standards.
Machiavellianism is similarly normalized too. The brutal honesty and ruthlessly rude, unsocial culture of macho corporate Darwinism has gone. Consider how Gordon Gekko (Wall Street, 1987) or Guy Ackerman (Swimming With Sharks, 1994) would fare in the contemporary work place. They wouldn’t ‘get on’ – because social exchange, empathy and bonds are now the mode of power and control. A ‘boss’ no longer cracks the whip by sheer expression of authority, but by being friendly, social and convivial. Managers, it seems, are now everyone’s best friends: ‘Hi mate. New shirt? Good weekend?’ More recent explorations of workplace meanies reflect this shift. The ‘villains’ depicted are the opposite of Gekko and Ackerman. Christine Stanford and Isabelle James in De Palma’s Passion (2012) are nice, polite and charming – at least on the surface. House of Cards riffs upon a similar dichotomy of façade and intent; Francis Underwood schmoozes and cajoles his way to power, his understanding or empathy with other characters is always a con. The disjunct between Underwood’s social self and his deeper, malicious and selfish, intent is impressed by his constant breaks of the fourth wall: ‘I know I’m being nice to him but…’ But, such Janus-faced disingenuousness is more normal than we might like to admit. We often, out of politeness, tell people we are fine really we are quite the opposite. During job interviews we spout barefaced lies about being ‘passionate and enthusiastic’ about, say, customer service or retail experience or admin. Perhaps part of such social-con artists appeal in contemporary culture is that they appeal to what we have to do daily. Francis Underwood and Christine Stanford are dramatically exaggerated characters, yet on some level we might identify with their conning and faked sociality – everyone fakes enthusiasm or interest at some point. That’s life, part of being a social person: ‘say sorry like you mean it’ we teach our children. One curiously relevant example from film recently is Ex Machina (2015), the film is saturated with questions of façade and what is truly genuine, what is real. Ava (the smart one) even asks: ‘Is Nathan your friend?’ But Nathan is the real con artist, the one with the convincingly casual façade. Like Mark Zuckerberg (everyone’s friend) Nathan is an unfathomably rich and powerful CEO, yet he is presented as a casual and social fellow. Wearing a T-shirt and jeans, a few beers on the couch are his preferred method of dominance: ‘I want to have beer and a conversation with you’ he presses on Caleb. He even explicitly rejects any position of authority, he calls Caleb buddy all the time: ‘You see, there’s my guy, there’s my buddy’. Of course, similar to social-networks, the whole social and friendly set-up is a ruse for exploitation.
Being like Nathan, Christine or Francis Underwood is hard though. And there are risks. We can get lost in our narcissism, vanity and mimicry of enthusiasm and empathy. To be narcissistic, Machiavellian and vain requires reflexivity. Yet, we can become paralyzed by reflexivity, confused and uncertain. It is one of the binds of late-capitalist living and post-modernity: we, our self, may become lost and discombobulated. Two recent novels explore this symptom of the uber-reflexive self. Ben Lerner’s Leaving Atocha Station (2011) is a first person (mostly) narration by Adam, an American poet in Madrid. Adam’s self conscious reflexivity is giddying, vertiginous. He succumbs to the Drost effect, the rabbit hole of self-reflection. Adam constantly views or considers himself from the third-person; the effect is soporific, sinking, and endless – like a literary Shepard Tone. Shifts from first to third person, much like the ‘mental breakdown’ section in Ellis’ American Psycho, Adam, like Bateman, is a casualty of self reflexivity:
But if there were no sun and the proportioning was off, if there were either too many people around or if the park was empty, an abyss opened up inside me as I smoked. Now, the afternoon was boundless in a terrifying way; it would never be tonight or the next day in room 58; silver and green drained from the landscape. I couldn’t bring myself to open the book. It was worse than having a sinking feeling; I was a sinking feeling, an unplayable adagio for strings; internal distances expanded and collapsed when I breathed. It was like failing to have awoken from at the right point in a nightmare; now you had to live in it, make yourself at home. He, if I can put it that way, had felt this as a child when they sent him to camp; his heart seemed at once to race and stop. Then his breath caught, flattened, shattered; as though a window had broken at thirty thousand feet, there was a sudden vacuum. Some of the gray was sucked inside him, and he was at a loss; he became a symptom of himself.
(Lerner, Leaving The Atocha Station, 2011, pp.16-17)
Another example is more literal, Adam’s self is splintered into the self that watches himself and the self he considers as if from afar.
In the distance airliners made their way to Barajas, lights flashing slowly on the wing, the contrails vaguely pink until it was completely dark. I imagined the passengers could see me, imagined I was a passenger that could see me looking up at myself looking down. (…)
I would roll one or two spliffs and put them in a pack of cigarettes, drink a glass of water, brush my teeth, walk down the stairs and out of the apartment into the plaza. I felt as I crossed the plaza that I was observing myself from the roof of my apartment; from there I could see that I was walking too fast and I’d stop, light a spliff or cigarette, then resume walking at a less frantic pace toward Puerta del Sol, the literal center of the city, which I could reach in a few minutes. From Sol I would pause and decide where to pretend I needed to be.
(Lerner, Leaving The Atocha Station, 2011, pp.21-22)
Tao Lin’s Taipei evokes the protagonist’s vertiginous reflexivity in a way that alludes to a much more technologized way of living life. Taipei is written in the third person mode, unlike Lerner’s. The protagonist of Taipei, Paul, often imagines himself as a red dot moving on a map like GPS tracked parcel, views life as a series of windows that may be collapsed, regards waking as accessing a PDF file and remembering as accessing a memory stick. Notably, Lin’s prose remains painfully yoked to our technologically imposed reflexivity and isolation (we have all considered our ‘online self/persona’).
In a taxi to a party, forty minutes later, Paul imagined another him walking toward the library and, for a few seconds, visualizing the position and movement of the two red dots through a silhouetted, aerial view of Manhattan, felt as imaginary, as mysterious and transitory and unfindable, as the other dot. He visualized the vibrating, squiggling, looping, arcing line representing the three-dimensional movement, plotted in a cubic grid, of the dot of himself, accounting for the different speed and direction of each vessel of which he was a passenger- taxi, Earth, solar system, Milky Way, etc.
(Lin, Taipei, 2013, pp.24-25)
Most mornings, with decreasing frequency, probably only because the process was becoming unconscious, he wouldn’t exactly know anything until three to twenty seconds of passive remembering, as if by unzipping a file-newroom.zip-into a PDF, showing his recent history and narrative context, which he’d delete after viewing, thinking that before he slept again he would have memorized this period of his life, but would keep newroom.zip, apparently not trusting himself.
(Lin, Taipei, 2013, p.35)
There were times when his memory, like an external hard drive that had been taken away from him and hidden inside an unwieldy series of cardboard boxes, or placed at the end of a long and dark and messy corridor, required much more effort than he felt motivated to exert simply to locate, after which, he knew, more effort would be required to gain access.
(Lin, Taipei, 2013, p.75)
Paul realized he’d said “America” not “Canada” and, in his state of near immunity from shame and/or anxiety, acknowledged a theoretical embarrassment, which someone not on MDMA, in his situation, might experience.
(Lin, Taipei, 2013, p.120)
Paul is constantly beside himself with self-consciousness, ensnared in a vicious doubt and reflexive stasis. Crucially though there is the use of the smile — or, to be more precise, the seemingly earnest grin — in Lin’s work. In Taipei there are over fifty references to grins and/or grinning. The grin is significant because a grin is often taken as being somehow disingenuous, when we force a smile we grin. The grin, has an implicit dishonestly, it is for appearance, a calculated expression, not a ‘natural’ expression like uncontrolled laughter. ‘Seemingly’ and ‘earnestly’ also populate Lin’s prose to impress the same sentiment of façade and the fragility of genuine interactions.
Many forms of work today are colonised by social interaction and empathy, but it is a shallow, exploited and, I argue, psychopathic mode of interaction. Friendly managers grin, seemingly earnest, as workers apathetically parrot various faux-social sentiments of consumerism like ‘take care now’ or ‘have a nice day’. Psychopathy is not the reserve of the ultra-rich or ‘greedy’ bankers but a facet of contemporary subjectivity. Charming, social psychopathy is more a symptom of our time, than it is characteristic of the criminal, amoral or villainous.
In the middle of the night the telephone rang. Lior Tirosh picked up the phone and a voice said, “Run.”
Tirosh stared blearily at the ceiling. A black cloud of mould had spread gradually over one corner of the room. It had began as a mere speck of dirt, some long while back, but now it had extruded aggressively outwards, had colonised and settled and stayed. The last time he’d spoken to his landlord, Yossi, the man had told him to use hot soapy water to gently wash off the mould. But Tirosh never did. In many ways he was a lazy man, not given to undue intervention in the little injustices of life. It was easier to let the mould grow than to try and combat its spread, knowing that anyway it would just come back, that one day, whatever he did, the mould would grow to cover the entire flat and, later, extrude farther, until first the city and then the entire Syrian-African Rift Valley would come under its sway. In such a world, Tirosh thought, still, perhaps, in that uncanny valley between wakefulness and dream (for he was usually a deep, if late, sleeper), the mould would eventually develop intelligence, and with it a sort of symbiotic relationship with the humans, whom it would enslave. In such a world (now so vivid in Tirosh’s mind that, for a moment, he all but forgot the strange telephone call he was in the midst of), a person would be marked from birth with the Black Sign of the fungus, perhaps on the forehead or – like the small round scar of a smallpox vaccine – on the arm, close to the shoulder. The Pax Fungi would then herald a never-before-seen era of peace and prosperity across the Middle East and beyond, until it extended across the entire planet. It would be a golden age never before seen in human history, and would – “Are you listening to me, Tirosh?” the voice demanded.
Outside, Tirosh could hear the creaking, halting sounds of a street sweeper as it crept along Hatkuma Street, which is to say, the Resurrection, right up to the intersection with Hatchiya, which is to say, Rebirth Street.
This was not out of the ordinary. Tirosh had first moved to Tel Aviv from the periphery. He had grown up on a kibbutz up north, a lonely child immersed in books for too long a time for his own benefit, like a Catholic child baptised forever in cold, if holy, water. Back then, he lived for a time in an apartment which sat on a confluence of streets all named for ancient pogroms. Blood libels and dead Jews haunted him on trips to the greengrocers and the local kiosk until, at last, he’d fled, past countless peeling Bauhaus contraptions that littered the sandy grounds of Tel Aviv like candy wrappers or empty, discarded packs of cigarettes, south to Jaffa.
“Who is this?” he said, sleepily.
“You have to leave,” the voice said. “They’re coming for you now.”
Tirosh sat up, suddenly awake.
“It is no longer safe for you there,” the voice said. “Go. Take nothing with you.”
“Not even poems?” Tirosh said.
“You don’t understand,” the voice said. “They are coming for all the poets.”
He – it was a man, with the slightly hoarse voice of a smoker – halted on the line. Behind him Tirosh heard the screeching of police sirens passing nearby, and a man shouting, and the sudden, startling sound of breaking glass.
“Run,” the voice said, again, and then the line died and took him with it.
Tirosh stared into the darkness. So it had come to this, he thought, chilled. He got up without turning on the lights. He dressed quickly, in dark jeans, and running shoes, and a faded, ancient T-shirt from the Witches concert at the Arad Festival in ’94, which was a year before the festival was shut down following the death of two girls and a boy, who were crushed to death in the crowd during a Mashina concert, and three years before the death of the Witches singer herself, Inbal Perlmuter, in a car accident. Tirosh had been mildly in love with Perlmuter at the time, though from a safe, platonic distance. Now he picked up the bag he had had waiting, prepared, by the bedside. It contained what little cash he had, a change of clothes, phone tokens, a copy of his first published collection of poetry, Remnants of God, and a copy of the single issue of the magazine he’d edited with Shimon Adaf, Echo, before Adaf was taken to one of the concentration camps they had built in the Galilee to house writers of the fantastic. He also packed three pens, a blank notebook, and the completed manuscript of the book he’d been working on for the past two and a half years, The Death of Hebrew Poetry.
When he peered out through the blinds he saw an unmarked car slide silently into a parking bay across the street and three men come out. They wore civilian clothes and moved swiftly and efficiently across the road, not hurrying, and he even thought he recognised one of them, a minor literary critic, or so he had styled himself back in the day, a mevaker, which could mean critic or visitor, and Tirosh would say, savagely, that the man was only a visitor to literature, not even that, someone who stood far away and looked out to literature and did not know it, like Moses at the summit of Mount Nevo, looking over the promised land which had been denied him. Now the man worked for the internal security service, the Shin-Bet, in their new Fourth Directorate. The other two men Tirosh did not know.
He left the flat and took the time to lock the door behind him. He used the back exit and, like a pencilled line of poetry on a scrap of paper, rubbed off yet still faintly visible, he slipped into the night.
In The Death of Hebrew Poetry, Tirosh makes several assertions that are now considered treason. In the manuscript, he asserts that the history of modern Israel is a fiction, “an elegantly wrought, collaborative narrative,” and calls it “a post-Holocaust novel in which the Nouveau Juif, nicknamed the Sabra as if he were a superhero who always keeps his mask on, is a liberator, the Thulian reincarnation of one of King David’s Gibborim, that is to say, heroes, brought forth to the present day.”
This literature, in what Tirosh identifies as a masterstroke of Hebrewized Newspeak, is adamantly referred to as Realist fiction by its collaborators, and its purpose is to negate the existence of a competing narrative called Palestine. It is for this reason, Tirosh argues, that so-called fantasy fiction never took hold in Hebrew. For if Realist fiction is fantastical, what use is fantasy?
And it is for this reason, indeed, that the first to go were, like Adaf, the fantasists. They were too suspect. Too out of touch with the ruling narrative. They worked alone and often in isolation, communicating with each other furtively, publishing in little magazines of no significance, to a small community of readers who saw in their writing nothing but mindless escapism. They were the first to go, Adaf and Keret and the others, to the new camps in the Galilee, but not Tirosh. Tirosh had always used a pseudonym for his stories. He had thought himself safe.
“A poem,” he says elsewhere in the manuscript, “is a terrorist attack.”
“Eastman,” he said. He was standing in a public phone booth on the Charles Clore promenade, which had once, long ago, been an Arab village called Menashiya, now itself, like Tirosh, just the faint outline of an erased inscription. Tirosh was feeding the phone tokens. It was not yet sunrise but the sky was lightening over the sea, and he could see a lone seagull swoop, then dive sharply towards the waves. “Eastman, it’s me.”
“Tirosh?” the publisher spoke in a whisper down the phone, and Tirosh pictured him hunched over his desk, in the cubby-hole that passed for his office, which was crammed every which way with books and magazines whose cheap pulp paper smelled like wet dog and whose pages whispered with fluttering moth wings. “You can’t – I mean, you’re at large? – I mean, they’ve just been here, Lior. They were asking about you!”
The words chilled Tirosh. “What did you tell them?” he whispered.
“What could I tell them?” the publisher said. “I don’t know where you are!”
“Listen, Eastman,” Tirosh said. “I’m calling about the money you owe me. I need the money, Eastman. I need the money to buy a way out of here.”
“Are you crazy, Lior? The borders are closed! The airport is watched! There is no way out!”
“There’s always a way out,” Tirosh said, darkly. “Listen, Eastman. About the money you owe me. The last book I did for you. The Vampire Hunters of Venus Alpha. I need it.”
“Are you crazy, Tirosh? What money? What book? I don’t do this kind of thing anymore! Do you think I want to end up in the camps like your friend, what’s his name? The book was pulped! Destroyed! I only do government-approved publications now, no fantasy, no mention of Arabs, no nothing! Don’t you understand, Tirosh, they’re – they’re —”
The publisher made a gurgled sound. His heavy breathing filled the white static noise of the telephone.
“. . . here.” The line went dead with a soft, terminal click.
Tirosh’s targets in The Death of Hebrew Poetry are manifold. He calls Amos Oz “the prissy Madame of the whole damn brothel”, Yehoshua “a writer with both the face and talent of a prune, and the historical comprehension of the parrot in a Monty Python sketch”, and says of Amichai, in reference to his most famous poem, that “God may feel mercy for the kindergarten children but he does not extend that same compassion to Amichai’s poor, hapless readers.” He is dismissive of Zach (“I am not sure which scent is worse,” he wrote, “the fumes of cheap wine or the desperation”), and he is mostly indifferent to Alterman.
“Between every line they ever wrote,” Tirosh said, “there is a deafening silence.” Tirosh skulked. He walked away from Jaffa along the promenade, passing the grand hotels and the Hassan Bek mosque, which stood forlorn against the gathering daylight, a sole testament to the area’s previous Arab inhabitants. Everything else had been razed, erased. Tended grass grew where once houses met. What had Mahmoud Darwish written, back when there were still Palestinians? Something about a country where one saw only the invisible.
Tirosh came up the incline towards the Carmel Market. Already at this early hour stalls were set up with fruit and vegetables from the Galilee and the Golan Heights and the shining new agricultural super-farms of the Jordan’s west bank. A Home for Every Family, posters proclaimed, showing the virginal, unspoiled fields, workers saluting stiffly into the rising sun, their rosy-cheeked children running, laughing, in fields of wheat. New cities being built across the horizon, high-rises reaching for the perfect blue sky. I would escape to the West Bank, Tirosh thought, I would marry and have two children, a boy and a girl, and go to synagogue every Friday and bless the Shabbat, and work in something obscure to do with electronics, and tend to my garden in my spare time. I would grow cabbages and carrots and celery, I would only grow vegetables beginning with a C. And I would never write another line of poetry, because poetry is dead. I would stop fantasising, because fantasy, I finally understand, is for children and the intellectually challenged. And I would change my name, to something silly and meaningless like Tidhar, which is a sort of Biblical tree.
He walked along the stalls when a man bumped into him carrying a crate of kohlrabi and jumped back, startled.
“Oh!” The man looked at him nervously and something in his face niggled at Tirosh’s memory. Then it came to him and he said, “Samir!” in a rush.
“I’m sorry,” the man said. “You must be mistaken.”
“Samir, it’s me, Tirosh! Don’t you remember me! What are doing here? I thought you were all…?” then he stopped, embarrassed.
“My name’s Zamir,” the man said. “I am a porter in the market. You don’t know what you’re talking about, mister.” And he patted the yarmulke he wore on his head. The gesture was protective.
“I’m sure it’s you,” Tirosh said. “You used to live next door, your dad ran the kiosk, you never celebrated with the rest of us on Independence Day.” And he looked at the man curiously.
“Tirosh?” the man – Samir, Zamir – said. “The poet?”
“So you do remember!” Tirosh said, delighted. It was always an intense joy for him to be recognised.
The man shied back. He put down the crate of kohlrabi and pointed a thin brown finger at Tirosh.
“A poet!” he shouted. “A poet! Get him! Get him, Jews!”
Tirosh saw heads turn, look over, slowly, sleepily. The reality of the situation suddenly settled upon him, like dust, making him choke.
“A poet!” Tirosh cried, wildly, pointing, along with the porter, in the direction of the car park and the sea. “A poet, he went that way! Get him!”
A slow-burning roar built up around them as porters put down boxes and sellers fine-tuned their pitch into barks of outrage and hatred. The assembled individuals were forming into a mob, and as a mob they began to stream down the market pathway, in what in Hebrew is called an alyehum, a communal uprising of indignation and rage.
Tirosh and Samir pressed into the shadows as the horde stormed down the hill in search of a poet, and Tirosh thought, shaken, if only poetry books ever garnered such an enthusiastic response, poetry might have still been alive.
He glared at Samir and the man shied from him and then, shaking his head slowly, with frightened eyes, the porter ran from Tirosh as fast as his legs would carry him. Tirosh, seeing the path clear, ambled up the road until he was free of the market and onto the intersection of Allenby and King George. He felt safer here, with the dead king and his general. He fled down the street, as the sun rose and his shadow fell longer and thinner, like a blade.
“Our heroes are dead,” wrote Tirosh. “We celebrate suicide by worshipping the dead of Masada: in the shadow of their mass grave we swear in our soldier-poets, even as we pretend that human life – by which we mean of course only our life – is sacred. We have lied to ourselves so much that we are lost, like the Hebrews in the desert. Poetry, seeking truth, cannot flourish here.”
He closes the book with an epitaph.
“Hebrew poetry is dead,” Tirosh wrote. “It died a long time ago and didn’t know it.”
As Tirosh wandered towards Dizengoff he realised how childish his manuscript was. Words changed nothing. They were like the cockroaches that cohabited his flat with him. They came out at night, through the cracks in the walls, and he, Tirosh, killed them, with thick heavy volumes of the Bible or Adaf’s Sunburnt Faces or Shimon Peres’ The New Middle East, smashing the hard covers on the black carapace of the insects until they died. But there were always more, and all the words and all the books in the world could not make a difference. “Fuck words!” he shouted, suddenly joyous with the realisation. “I renounce! I renounce!’ He opened his bag with fingers shaking with hunger and excitement. “Burn them!” he cried. “Burn them all!” His fingers found the thick wad of manuscript pages and he pulled it and tossed it in the air. The pages flew high and then fell everywhere, a flurry of meaningless words on a page. “Burn them!”
Passersby turned and stared. Then a manic joy took hold of the crowd, and by ones and twos, some pulling along their children, some on their bikes, others with prams or shopping bags, they came, congregating around the fallen pages. A stone arced through the air and smashed the window of a bookshop. In moments the crowd turned and the looting began. The riot spread and shops were pelted and destroyed. Where Tirosh stood a vast edifice grew by degrees: books piled high and kindled with chair legs and broken sofas, beach tennis rackets and wooden dolls. Policemen came and stood, watching. Then someone doused the pile with gasoline and tossed a match.
Tirosh watched the fire burn. The flames billowed upwards as though they could devour the sky. In the black smoke that rose from the funeral pyre Tirosh imagined he could discern words, good words and bad. Like black butterflies they rose out of the hissing sputtering ink and faded, slowly, in the air. Tirosh stood, sweating, and watched the flames reflect in the policemen’s mirrored sunglasses. He felt a giddy excitement.
He was free.
From somewhere on Gordon a group of men approached pulling a struggling youth between them, beating him savagely with their fists when he fought back. He was really not much more than a boy. “A poet, a poet!” they cried, and the mob said, “Burn him, let him burn!”
“No!” the boy cried, “No!” but the word had no meaning. Tirosh knew him slightly, from another time.
“Let him burn!” he said.
The boy, crying, was dragged to the funeral pyre. His screams turned into a single word, repeated over and over, and it took Tirosh a moment to discern it, to taste its shape.
“Tutim!” the boy cried. “Tutim, tutim!”
Tirosh sighed, for even with approaching death the boy could merely repeat the words of another. Strawberries, he kept shouting, strawberries, quoting the late poet Yona Wallach’s most famous poem.
“Tutim, tutim!” Tirosh said. The crowd took up the meaningless sound like a holy chant. Their roar was deafening. “Tutim, tutim, tutim!”
Tirosh watched as the boy was carried to the flames.
This is an extract from Art & War: Poetry, Pulp & Politics in Israeli Fiction by Lavie Tidhar and Shimon Adaf. The second part of the book contains two short stories, one by each author. Both were written in the summer of 2014. Following the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers in June, a Palestinian teenager, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, was kidnapped in retaliation and set on fire; two of his murderers were similarly underage. On the 8th of June the Israeli army began an intense rocket bombardment of Gaza, followed by a ground assault, in response to Palestinian rockets fired towards Israel. The operation led to the death of over 2000 Palestinians, and 72 Israelis.
Both stories are haunted by the image of the burning boy; both struggle with the futility of poetry. They represent a conversation; and each author appears as an aside in the other’s story.