Thursday, November 15, 2007

An economy of meanings

This post about Gilad Atzmon and Spinoza stirred further thoughts about stuff, as sometimes happens. I pick up the end of string, and before I know it, I find it is a long thread, tangled. If I choose to follow it, it may lead me to unexpected locations. So I choose to do so, now.

I posted part of my thoughts in that post on the Engage Website. Some comment I made seemed to generate some heat, not in the direction I was thinking about. But I am a curious creature and I am always pleased when a discussion develops intelligently yet in a unpredictable direction. Eventually, the detour comes back to the main path, the main discussion, and we, who walked on that short journey, have gained some insight.

So this discussion started by my expressing my doubts about David Hirsh being designated as an "ultra Zionist". From my on-line experience with David Hirsh, I thought the description was hyperbolic. I explained why.

(Aside: David Hirsh, if I may add, is the chief editor of Engage and the main mover and shaker in the campaign against the Boycott. It is obvious that he cares deeply for these issues, which are about justice and decency, more than anything else. Terry Glavin, just the other day, referred to David in his succinct summation of a trip to Britain: "comrades and the sweetest kinds of people, not least of whom were David Hirsch and the crew from Engage, ..." I was pleased with this description because it confirmed something I had intuitively felt myself about David Hirsh. He is carrying out a mission which pits him against not only his adversaries but also against people on his own side. It cannot be very pleasant. And I'm sure it often feels like an thankless job. However (always the inevitable "but"), David Hirsh is a professional thinker and teacher. I show my respect and appreciation to his considerable talents by asking critical questions and making my own positions as clear as I can.)

David took exception to my comment. Another poster tried to bolster David's position by referring to him as a "loyal Jew". David was unhappy about being described thus. "Do me a favour, leave the "loyal Jew" stuff to the anti-Zionist Jews, with their "Jewish values" and their "as a Jew" pleading."

This reaction puzzled me. Why do some Jewish intellectuals find it very embarrassing to be called "loyal Jews"? Is it the ultimate uncool in (some) Leftist circles?

And why would David Hirsh, with his intellectual powers and genuine devotion to the pursuit of justice, why would he let "the anti-Zionist Jews, with their "Jewish values" and their "as a Jew" pleading." define the meaning of what Loyalty or Jewishness are? Why would he allow these other Jews and their friends, with their faulty arrogant thinking, the power to reduce the scope and depth of his very language and values?

They resort to linguistic reductionism in order to fix the meaning of "loyal Jew" into something suspect, ghettoish, narrow-minded. They use "Zionism" as a slur word. They vitiate these terms of their positive content, in order to brand, smear and stigmatize Jewish people who feel for Israel and Jewish history. As responsible speakers of language, as possessors of independent intellect and critical faculties, we cannot allow these impoverished ideologues to rule on these matters, to bowdlerize the language in which we speak our true thoughts.

In her book of essays “Economy of the Unlost”, Anne Carson tries to locate, as far as she can, the meaning, source, energy of poetry, its possibility of being and what that possibility means. She does it by comparing two poets who lived 25 centuries apart, Simonides of Keos (5th century b.c.e) and Paul Celan (a Romanian Jew and a survivor of the Holocaust).

The “economy” of the title refers to the spareness of poetic application of language. It would seem that one of her suggestions is that at times when parts of language and meanings of words have been appropriated and deformed, thereby lost, it is the duty of the poet to use what is left economically. Simonides’s notorious stinginess with money was mirrored perfectly in his language-sparing poetry. It was as if he tried to illustrate the total and overwhelming importance of the word by using money in the way he used words.

For Celan, this reality is not of his own choosing. The German language, into which he was born and upon which he grew up, was hijacked at a certain point for a national “deathbearing talk”. Once the short existence of the Thousand-Year Third Reich were over, language survived, but badly beaten, warped, crippled, decimated, terribly fragile. That’s what Celan had to work with, decided to work with, but with great care and frugality, to preserve what is unlost that is still usable. In other words, to use language with extreme economy.

Paul Celan was extremely anxious about the erosion of meanings in language, as Anne Carson says:

“ He sometimes saw language-death as a more universal problem: The tendency of meanings to “burn out” of language and to be covered by a “load of false and disfigured sincerity” is one that he here ascribes to ‘The whole sphere of human communicative means”.

It’s this kind of anxiety that animates my concern over the shrinking of terms, in this particular context, such as "loyal Jew" or "antisemitism" or "Zionism", that drains them of their moral import and relevance by being associated all too freely and cheaply with a-historical analogies, with petty, self-serving squabbles, with violent politics. It is my belief that intellectuals ought to adopt this pristine ethos of linguistic economy, to be particularly mindful not to squander the precious meanings of moral terms in the service of some short-term political thesis.

Language is the power, the medium, the capital, through which our identity is conveyed and in which we invest our thoughts and projects. "What remains? Language remains", said Hannah Arendt famously, in her interview with Gunter Gaus, "I always refused to lose my language".

All of which is to say, rather crudely: I would refuse to allow a bunch of charlatans with lazy intellects, mediocre understanding, and self-indulgent malleable ethics to determine what a good Jew is or is not, or what Judaism does or does not mean or what it should mean.

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