Lost in Translation

hilltopVery little foreign literature is published each year in English translation.  According to the University of Rochester’s Three Percent project, only three percent of books published each year in the United States are works in translation, and the numbers for fiction and poetry are miniscule.  That’s why, when I come across a work of literature that has passed this nearly impassable bar – translation from a foreign language to English – and it’s terrible, I want to cry and tear my hair out.  Because it’s fairly likely that there is some transcendent work of art out there, locked in its original language, that no English speaker will ever get the chance to read.

It’s particularly galling when a book translated from Hebrew is so bad, because there are only a tiny, tiny handful of books translated from Hebrew to English each year.  Even this year’s winner of Israel’s top literary award, the Sapir Prize – Ruby Namdar’s Ha-bayit asher nekhrav (The Ruined House) – has not yet been translated, and Namdar actually lives in New York.  And yet here is Assaf Gavron’s The Hilltop on the front shelf of Barnes and Noble, wasting our time.

There are actually two problems with the translation of The Hilltop: one is its unworthiness – it’s at best a mediocre novel – but the other is the translation itself, which is awkward and riddled with non-idiomatic English.  For example, this description of Passover: “Leavened foodstuffs were burned, and Seder night passed by with the hilltop residents celebrating the transfer from Egypt, the wanderings, the transient nature of Jewish dwelling places throughout the ages, and their shared consciousness of an exiled people yearning for their homeland.” (Emphasis added)  Leaving aside the thematic and ideological heavy-handedness of this passage, which is only Gavron’s fault, any translator worth his salt should know that the process of the Jewish slaves leaving Egypt is popularly referred to as an exodus, not a transfer.  I don’t have the Hebrew version so I can’t even imagine why the translator made this choice, but it makes it sound like Moses worked for Boeing and had to move from Seattle to Chicago, not like he was leading the Jewish people out of hundreds of years of slavery. I could offer numerous other examples of this kind of thing, but why waste your time?

Likewise, I don’t recommend wasting your time on the rather boring plot, which basically just follows the lives of a bunch of nutty religious settlers in an illegal hilltop outpost in the West Bank.  The characters are not particularly sympathetic and seem rather childishly drawn to demonstrate just how three-dimensional nutty religious settlers can be: the teenage girl who has an affair with the soldier guarding the base, the woman who kicks out her lazy, alcoholic husband and starts wearing her hair loose, the formerly secular kibbutznik who lost custody of his son after physically abusing him.  I felt like the book kept trying to call attention to how interesting and unusual this seemingly monolithic group of people could be, but the scope of their diversity was so narrow and their personalities so lacking that these artificial quirks did nothing to pique my interest.

hagivaI do have a few good words for this novel, though.  It does one thing excellently: expose the labyrinthine and deliberately extra-legal processes by which illegal settlements in the West Bank are legitimated by the state of Israel.  Though technically illegal, the settlement is established and grows through a combination of back-room deals with sympathetic politicians and government functionaries, deception, and legal challenges that delay any action long enough to establish “facts on the ground.” Even after the settlement is nominally dismantled and partially bulldozed by the military on government orders, the novel ends with the settlers’ return to the hilltop, where they plan to rebuild. This exposure of the process of establishing new settlements in the occupied territories is something that would do English-language readers good to know about.  Unfortunately, it’s not worth reading the book for.

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And Who Shall I Say Is Calling?

boneclocksOne of David Mitchell’s literary preoccupations is interconnectedness, the way that, as the theory goes, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings might change the course of history (or at least the weather).  Or, say, the way that a trapped and depressed FAA contract worker might set a fire that cancels your surprise trip to Chicago to see your dad who’s recovering from a hip replacement (still not over it!).  Mitchell makes connections, so when I’m reading him I see connections.  As I was reading The Bone Clocks, his new novel, in which one of the peripheral characters rides a Norton motorcycle, I happened to see a guy wearing a Norton T-shirt at the diner near my house as I ate brunch with my family.  As I re-read the review of the book in the New York Times Book Review, I noticed that the review underneath it (yes, I still get a hard copy of the paper) referred to events that took place in January 1967, the year my husband was born.  And the world shrinks a little bit, everything stitched together a little tighter.

Perhaps that’s why I was tempted to see so many of the themes of the season in this book, even though there’s nothing remotely Jewish about it (and organized religion generally comes in for a beating – more on that later).  Reading during Rosh Hashanah and the beginning of the yamim noraim, the ten days between the New Year and Yom Kippur, the day of repentance, I felt like the novel had something to say about so many of the central themes of the holidays: memory, death, rebirth, mortality, choice and free will, and second chances.  These are Mitchell’s touchstones, the big questions he goes back to again and again in all of his novels, but The Bone Clocks brings them together both abstractly – in the form of recurring characters and names, places and events, both within the world of this novel and across his oeuvre – and concretely, as a largish subplot (more later on why it seems like the main plot but isn’t) focuses on a group of immortal souls and their fight against those who would induce immortality by artificial and predatory means.

There is a magical kind of rebirth and resurrection in this novel, but as always the actual magic is just a foil for a consideration of the kind of everyday wonder of life, in this case through the perhaps paradoxical lens of mortality and death.  There are characters in this novel who are willing to fight to the death to live forever, unchanged physically, emotionally, or morally by time and experience, but the most powerful forces in the novel are not supernatural.  Rather, they are the things we experience, and undervalue, every day: love, memory, friendship, community, family.  Even for those who are not immortal, an aging character reflects at the end of the novel, “We live on, as long as there are people to live on in.”  All of us are constantly reborn and resurrected in the memories (and DNA) of others, without recourse to magic.

Perhaps because it follows one character, more or less, from youth to old age, The Bone Clocks, more than other Mitchell novels, is able to concentrate on the way that death gives meaning to life.  The immortals in this book have to find other ways to make meaning that mortal humans have access to by default.  Leonard Cohen has a song, called “Who By Fire” after the words of a prayer central to the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, that lists the many possible ways we might meet our end (or prosper) in the coming year.  In it, he intones repeatedly, “And who shall I say is calling?”  He doesn’t answer the question; we all know who’s calling: death.  On Yom Kippur we rehearse for death by abstaining from life-sustaining activities and wearing our shrouds.  Why?  Because remembering that we are going to die is the only way to make sure that we are really living now.  As the late, great rabbi Alan Lew wrote, “we are not supposed to wait for a hanging, or for the doctors to pronounce that awesome word of judgment ‘malignant,’ because by then it might be too late.  We are supposed to ask these questions all the time, and at least once a year, at least on this solemn day.  What is my life really about? What is the truth of my life?”  The down side of immortality is that there is no urgency to this question, and this question is what gives life its meaning.

The more I read him, the more I think that Mitchell’s novels are religious texts for atheists.  At the very least, they offer a suggestion of supernatural order to those who doubt the efficacy and human benefit of traditional forms of organized religion.  There’s usually some kind of higher power controlling things from behind the scenes, whether it’s a band of immortal souls or a renegade artificial intelligence.  There’s usually a plan at work that is slightly mysterious, often misunderstood, and outside of regular human control or even awareness.  Of course, in a body of work so invested in exploring the uses and boundaries of literature itself, this higher intelligence is an obvious metaphor for the writer himself, invisible but apparent in every line, omnipotent and omniscient but conscious of the need to preserve the illusion of choice and free will.  In that sense the semi-divine powers in Mitchell’s work are an ironic commentary not only on the seductions and limitations of religious belief, but also on the ways that fiction – just a thin web of beautiful untruths – can move us, change us, bring us to our knees with nothing more than words.

Ultimately, the story is the magic.  Despite the supernatural elements, they prove to be only a small, insignificant moment in the larger story of life on earth, and the life of the main character, Holly Sykes.  For a significant portion of the narrative, it seems that the plot centers on an epic battle between good and evil, and Holly and many of the people she knows and loves are caught up in this war in one way or another.  Finally, she ends up playing a big role in its resolution, and it seems that good has prevailed.  But the war that seems to be the main plot ends before the last section of the book, and that’s when we realize that this focus on one battle has been a feint, a purposeful distraction from the real evil, which is human and familiar.  It turns out that the most malevolent forces in the book, and in our universe, are not the self-proclaimed bad guys but all of us, with our petty greed and ignorant complacency, our consumerism and consumption, our disregard for the big picture in favor of distraction, our dislike of discomfort.

Mitchell1This brings me back again to the season of teshuvah, or repentance, whose literal meaning is “return.”  On Yom Kippur we are to return to those things that make us most uncomfortable: our misdeeds, our errors, our greed and hatred and jealousy.  In The Bone Clocks, these are the things that destroy the world, and our souls, on a far greater scale than any immortality-seeking “soul carnivore.”  This is the moment – of the year, and of history – to discomfit ourselves, to force the encounter with those unpleasant facts of our own humanity in order to make ourselves, and our world, whole again.  We must be healed in order to heal, we must look through the darkness to see the light.  As the poet Gerald Stern writes in “Lucky Life,”

Lucky life is like this. Lucky there is an ocean to come to.
Lucky you can judge yourself in this water.
Lucky you can be purified over and over again.
Lucky there is the same cleanliness for everyone.
Lucky life is like that. Lucky life. Oh lucky life.
Oh lucky lucky life. Lucky life.

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Behaving Like Jews

This post was originally published at Tikkun Daily.

I am going to behave like a Jew

and touch his face, and stare into his eyes,

and pull him off the road.

-Gerald Stern, “Behaving Like a Jew”

fergusonIt’s been almost a month since a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown.  In the wake of the shooting, residents of Ferguson concerned about police brutality and racism turned out in the streets to protest peacefully, and were met with tanks, riot gear, and tear gas.  (A small number of people were involved in either looting local businesses or throwing bottles and other small-scale weaponry, which was used to justify the police crackdown.)  Journalists, local politicians, and scores of people doing nothing but exercising a constitutionally protected right to free assembly were arrested and harassed.

During this period of unrest, my Facebook newsfeed was full of outrage and despair.  But very little of that passion was directed at Ferguson.  Instead, it was largely about Operation Protective Edge, in Gaza.  Every day I was greeted with scores of articles defending Israel’s right to defend itself, justifying the scale of force in Gaza, and reporting on both rocket fire and tunnels dug by Hamas into Israeli territory.  (To be fair, I also saw numerous articles reporting on peace demonstrations, critiquing the scale of Israeli response to rocket fire, and mourning the loss of life on both sides.)

Though this is merely anecdotal, it seems fairly representative of the institutional American Jewish response to events in Ferguson.  While individual rabbis and Jewish leaders have called attention to and even protested against the violence in Missouri, and many articles, including those in Tikkun, have argued strongly for a Jewish ethical obligation to the Ferguson protestors, major, mainstream Jewish organizations have been largely silent.  The Anti-Defamation League offers a lesson plan for talking about Ferguson with students on its website, but its only official statement is a denunciation of the presence of the New Black Panther Party at the Ferguson protests. Of the mainstream American Jewish religious movements, only the Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism issued a press release regarding the violence in Ferguson.

Institutional American Judaism was once at the forefront of the civil rights movement.  Famously, prominent rabbis like Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with civil rights leaders in the American South.  Many of these Jewish leaders were inspired to ally themselves with powerless people of color in the United States because of their own experiences of oppression in Europe.  We continue to celebrate the history of Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement over half a century ago, but have little to show for it today: what prominent American rabbi or lay leader went to march with the people of Ferguson?

We know that American Jewish institutions are capable of raising their voices for causes they hold dear: witness the recent strong public defense of Israel.  Why have the same organizations been so quiet about the violence and anti-democratic tendencies in their own back yard?  It would be impossible to answer that question definitively, but I would like to suggest one contributing factor that should trouble American Jews.  Is it possible that the institutional American Jewish community – that is, the major organizations representing various facets of American Jewry, who have the money and visibility to exert the most influence in the public sphere – has been distracted, or worse, that its commitment to social justice in America has been adversely affected by its focus on Israel?

In its most benign interpretation, this theory would suggest that American Jewish institutions are so thoroughly occupied by their attention to Israel, not just in the recent crisis, but on an ongoing basis, that they no longer have the energy, interest, or time (not to mention funding) to fight injustice at home.  That is, perhaps these organizations have made a conscious or unconscious decision to direct most of their energy toward support for Israel.  The front page of the website of every major American Jewish organization, bar none, mentions various programs and initiatives designed to support Israel, so it is clear that Israel is a top priority.  While this makes sense, and organizations must always make decisions about where and how to direct their necessarily limited energies, it would be worthwhile for American Jews to ask whether this focus on Israel draws Jewish attention away from engagement with important social and political issues in America that have always benefitted from Jewish involvement and support. As many people have pointed out, Jewish tradition necessitates our involvement.  Sympathy and solidarity with the powerless and oppressed has become a hallmark of what it means to be Jewish in America.  It is part of how being Jewish has come to be defined.

ferguson gazaDoes this withdrawal from active institutional defense of civil rights in America, then, reflect a change in how the American Jewish community defines itself and its Judaism?   Partly, it demonstrates a changed relationship to power.  Certainly, Jews in America are relatively prosperous and successful, largely insulated from the kind of anti-Semitism that has been on the rise in Europe and, for the majority of us who are white, privy to the privileges of whiteness.  But this cannot fully explain a withdrawal from active engagement in the crisis in Ferguson.  Rather, I think it is partially the result of a more troubling, hidden connection to the American Jewish focus on Israel, one that only becomes clear when we draw the lines between the two conflicts.  To be clear, the recent war between Israel and Hamas and the confrontation between police and protestors in Ferguson are not the same.  Each situation has its own particular and unique history and context.  But when tanks rolled down city streets and confronted unarmed protestors at the same time that a powerful military bombed areas densely packed with civilians, it was possible to see the ways in which power and powerlessness played out similarly in each situation.  Even those involved in the conflicts recognized it: Palestinians in Gaza began to share advice on dealing with tear gas with Ferguson protestors on Twitter.  And it was also easy to see which side of the power equation American Jewish institutions stand on: with Israel, with its tanks and its tear gas and its dominant military.  I am not arguing whether this stand is justified – that argument is furious and ongoing.  But any alliance with power has its consequences, and I am asking us to consider seriously the possibility that American Jewish organizations, steadfast as always in support of Israel, saw the inevitable parallels, imperfect as they are, between the people of Ferguson and the people of Gaza, and remained quiet.  If so, American Jews must consider the possibility that our attention to Israel has paradoxically caused us to forget how, to paraphrase the words of the poet Gerald Stern, to behave like Jews.

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Gender and Nation at War

A couple of weeks ago, the Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, in the context of a conversation about what could stop terror attacks like the recent murder of three Israeli teenagers, suggested that “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped.”  Kedar, as he himself pointed out in the interview, was not suggesting the use of such a tactic, but rather pointing to what he felt was the only possible deterrent to terror attacks: the threat of violence against women.

Judah Maccabee

Judah Maccabee

Regardless of whether one agrees with Kedar or not, his comments, taken together with other recent events related to the Israeli military, the current campaign in Gaza, and internal Israeli protests for and against the war, point to the gendered discourse on which Israeli culture and society was built.  Contemporary definitions of an Israeli Jewish masculinity dependent on military domination arose out of 19th-century conceptions of the European Jewish diaspora.  In this formulation, adopted by early Zionists and promulgated by Theodor Herzl’s colleague Max Nordau, European Jewish culture had become, by the late 19th century, “abnormal,” particularly with regard to gender relations.  In enlightenment critiques, Jewish women, who were traditionally (even if not always actually) breadwinners for their scholar-husbands, were portrayed as emasculating tyrants, and traditional Jewish men as weak, impotent sidekicks to their powerful wives.  Nordau and other early Zionists picked up on this critique, and claimed one of the goals of Zionism as the “normalization” of gender within the Jewish community, such that Jewish men would be restored to their rightful status as heirs to Jewish heroes like Bar Kochba and the Maccabees, whom Nordau claimed were “the last embodiment in world history of a bellicose, militant Jewry.”  This desire to re-gender Jewish men was at the heart of the image of the New Jew, modeled on Nordau’s ideal of a Jewish national body made up of “deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men.”

This image of the New Jew is deep at the heart of the Israeli self-image and social constructions of gender in Israeli society.  The connection between militarization and masculinity is inextricably entwined with the ideological roots of Zionism.  Kedar’s comments generally reflect the way in which gender and power are conceived in Israeli culture and specifically reflect the way in which rape, or the threat of rape, functions not just as a tool of war but as a mode of constructing and maintaining the ideal of the male Israeli soldier-citizen, an image crucial to Israel’s national identity and self-consciousness.  I am not discussing here the way in which individual Israelis or individual men or women understand themselves within these ideological and historical terms, but the way in which Israeli self-image as a whole has been discursively constructed – through speech, image, and ideology – on the basis of a particular, and dangerous, conception of gender.

Kedar’s comments reveal the basic assumption that the bodies of women are in some fundamental way identified with the nation, and that their violation would thus constitute an act of war.  As the scholar Susan Sered notes in her study What Makes Women Sick?, “…what lies behind the determination to keep women out of combat positions is a sense that because women symbolize the collective, rape of a woman – unlike rape or torture of a man – is an affront to the honor of the state….The rape of a woman soldier is construed as equivalent to the rape of the Jewish people.”  Kedar simply reverses this formulation, assuming the same logic applies to the terrorist enemy.

stand with idfBut in constructing women as inherent victims, by making their bodies contiguous with the battlefield, the role of women in war is relegated to that of sex object.  Indeed, recent photos posted on the Facebook page “Standing with IDF” of partially naked women with messages of support for the Israeli army scrawled on their bodies is consistent with the notion that women’s bodies support the war effort through a deployment of their sexuality, not through their service.

In a parallel example, when the young recruit Udi Segal recently refused his service in the IDF, protestors at the draft office where he was due to report for service taunted him by calling it his “gay coming out party” and yelled at his supporters to “Go get fucked in the ass!”  The same gendered logic that relegates women’s role in war to that of victim or sex object cannot reconcile the image of a man who refuses to be a soldier.  Since masculinity is synonymous with military service in Israeli culture, a man who does not serve, must, by this logic, be gendered or sexed differently.

It appears that this logic also extends beyond just service in the military, but also to support (or criticism) of military actions.  Several recent accounts of demonstrations or attacks against peace protesters in Israel have noted similar language leveled at them for supporting peace.  The journalist Haggai Matar wrote that violent attacks against peace protesters in Tel Aviv were “accompanied by swearing and sexual threats”; Moriel Rothman-Zecher wrote that at the same protest counter-demonstrators shouted, as they did to Udi Segal and his supporters, “You all get fucked in the ass”; and Rebecca Hughes notes that she has seen “blue and white dildos waved threateningly at peace protestors” – a literalization of the idea of the masculine state using sexual violence as a means of domination.

All of these scenes are what naturally follow from the equation of masculinity with militarism in a society in which participation in the military is a condition of citizenship.  The scenario proposed by Mordechai Kedar does not need to be carried out in order for the danger to be real: for women, certainly, but also for a society precariously balanced on the assumption of women’s victimization and highly gendered conceptions of power.

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Violence and its Ends

Many, many friends of mine have been posting on Facebook recently about the conflict in Israel-Palestine, the bombs falling on Gaza and the rockets falling on Israel, and other aspects of the situation, including recent violent attacks on left-wing protesters in Israeli cities. These posts tend to fall all over the political spectrum: some of them resolutely defend Israel, some of them express sympathy with Gazans and Palestinians more generally, some of them are critical of both Israel and the Palestinians, some of them are critical of only one side or the other. I don’t agree with them all, although I am often curious to read even those opinions and ideas that I am inclined to automatically reject. Generally, I don’t comment unless I feel I can add something to the conversation and the conversation is respectful and thoughtful (this automatically disqualifies many posts, sadly).

Golda Meir

Golda Meir

Yesterday, a quote attributed to Golda Meir (which as far as I can tell is legit) popped up several times in my news feed. Printed against the backdrop of a photo of Meir speaking, the quote read, “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.” This quote raised my hackles in a way that nothing else has, and after starting a conversation about the appropriate response to racist and hateful posts, I was inspired to comment (more on what those comments were in a moment). But it also occurred to me that this quote, and my response to it, is at the center of recent events, far flung and mostly unrelated, that have created a sick knot in my stomach over the last week: the crisis in Israel-Palestine, the downing of a Malaysian passenger plane, the botched execution of an Arizona man, and the horrifying murder of my college classmate Dan Markel. I had an anxious sense that all these things were related, but until I thought deeply about the Meir quote, I didn’t know why.

If we look more closely at Meir’s claim, we can see that it depends on the assumption of a faceless group called “the Arabs,” who act and feel as one monolithic entity.  This monolithic entity, she claims, loves its children less than it hates Israeli Jews.  If it is an inherent quality of human beings that we love our children unconditionally and above all, then to love one’s children less than one hates someone else is necessarily to be somewhat less than fully human.  Of course, as with any essentializing claim about humanity, it doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny.  If even one Arab loves his children above all, then Meir is wrong.

But proving this claim wrong is not enough; we have to understand why it is so dangerous. Examining its insidious mechanism reveals the way that generalizing, monolithic claims about religious, ethnic, and national groups dehumanize individuals and enable both the kind of mass killing we see now every day in the news – in Gaza, in Ukraine, in Sudan and elsewhere – and the kind of personal violence that killed Dan. Statements like these dehumanize whole groups of people, reducing them to nameless, faceless Others who are not like us, whose actions are the cause of our suffering (and their own), whose deaths are incidental to the larger human drama of which they are not a part.

I am thinking here not only of the Golda Meir quote, but also of the pro-Russian rebel commander who, when asked why a civilian plane would be flying over Ukraine, allegedly answered, “It means they wanted to bring some spies to us. Fuck them. They should not fly, we are at war here.” The people on the plane were not vacationers, scientists, children – they were spies. Spies who don’t belong, who, by flying inadvertently into a war zone, brought their deaths upon themselves. I am thinking of a professor friend who told me of an Iraq war vet in one of his classes who explained that the only way to kill someone is to convince yourself you are not killing a person, by persuading yourself through racism or other forms of magical thinking that your target is not human, but less than. I am thinking about the heinous murderer Joseph Wood, who was left gasping on a gurney for nearly two hours as the state of Arizona experimented with a new combination of lethal drugs for execution, and his victim’s brother-in-law, Richard Brown, who asked, “Why didn’t we give him Drano?” Without in any way minimizing Wood’s crimes or the suffering he caused, his prolonged execution and the subsequent suggestion that his death should have been horrible smacks of the kind of human experimentation that has only been carried out by the most abhorrent regimes in history against those deemed unworthy of life. I am thinking about the person who put a gun to Dan’s head, who in order to pull the trigger must have thought that his own grievances superseded Dan’s very humanity, his right to continue to live on this earth as a father, a son, a friend. I am thinking about Dan himself, whose field of study was retributive justice, a form of punishment that repudiates vengeance, and whose opposition to the death penalty was well known.

namesonwall.tumblr.com

namesonwall.tumblr.com

This is why I think it’s so important, right now, to fight the twin reactions of despair and silence. We have to speak out when we see dehumanization occurring, in speech or in deeds, point to it, disarm it with more speech, with dialogue, conversation, and respect. And we have to hope that our words will have some small effect, even if only to strengthen our own commitment to humanity and to humanism. We must remember the names of the victims of violence regardless of whether we feel the violence against them was justified, as in war, or not. We must commemorate and analyze and create beauty from destruction. We should mourn and rebuild what was destroyed when we can, strengthen community and human ties, move forward and go on.  The Israeli journalist Haggai Matar posted a reflection yesterday titled, “A Few Optimistic Thoughts in a Nearly Empty Airport.” (Sorry, it’s only available in Hebrew.) He wrote, “Despite the despair and pessimism all around, I stubbornly believe that there is still hope here….I know there are those who will say that this is naïve, but it’s not.” It may be naïve, actually, but if it is I will accept this naïveté as the price I pay for a world in which we never stop fighting for an end to violence.

 

Dan Markel.  This photo seemed more like him than the posed one that's been reprinted everywhere.

Dan Markel. This photo seemed more like him than the posed one that’s been reprinted everywhere.

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Science v. Stereotype

ImageSadly, the issues Carl Hart discusses in High Price, his memoir-cum-manifesto about drugs and drug policy in America, have been much in the news lately after the death of the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Hart is a professor of neuroscience at Columbia who studies the neuropsychology of drug addiction.  He also grew up in working-class and poor African-American neighborhoods in Miami and saw firsthand the social effects of both drugs and drug policies on his family and friends.  The book is an unusual but not unwelcome mix of personal reflection and scientific information about drugs and addiction drawn both from Hart’s own work and previous studies.  It’s an ambitious project, and I think he pulls it off adequately, but part of me wished that he had written a spectacular book rather than a good one, since the ideas it advances are so pertinent and necessary.

Let me explain: everything about this book is fascinating – Hart’s description of his youth and his scientific gloss on the psychological phenomena at work that he now understands; the empirical information about drug addiction that contradicts most of our dominant stereotypes about it; and his political prescriptions for correcting decades of failed drug policy in the United States.  The combination of this material makes for one of the most unique and interesting memoirs I’ve ever read.  The problem is that in his ambition to retain an authentic voice, Hart wrote the book largely by himself (as far as I can tell).  He mentions and thanks a writer with whom he worked to shape the narrative, but she is not listed as a co-author and, judging by the slightly stilted prose, probably did not significantly contribute to the actual writing.  I hate to make this criticism, because it’s a perfectly well-written book, and based on Hart’s own description of his education it was no small feat for him to get to the place where he was able to write it; it’s just not beautifully written, and there are awkward passages and descriptions here and there (including some weirdly graphic depictions of women’s bodies).  I wish it had been  more elegantly written so more people would read it and take it seriously, because it’s an amazing story and offers the most humane and logical solution to the problem of drugs that I’ve heard yet.

What is this solution?  Decriminalization of pretty much all drugs.  Not legalization, in which use, possession, and selling drugs would be unpoliced, but a policy under which the possession and use of drugs is punished by citation and not by criminal penalty.  This might sounds like a radical move, but it’s not unprecedented and it is largely supported by the scientific evidence produced in Hart’s own lab and in other studies.  Several U.S. states have begun to decriminalize or legalize marijuana, and the country of Portugal decriminalized all illegal drugs in 2001.  Combined with expanded treatment and counseling options, this has caused a decrease in drug-induced deaths and overall drug use in Portugal.  Of course, it costs a little bit up front (costs that are saved on the back end due to decreases in prosecution and imprisonment) and so, like so many public policy innovations in the U.S. that cost now but save later (universal pre-K, universal health insurance) it will never, ever be implemented.

Also, of course, I despair of the U.S. ever implementing this eminently logical, well-reasoned policy because DRUGS!  One of the things this book addresses is our dumb stereotypes about drugs, many of them fed to us by Ronald Reagan and his cronies.  Drug policy in the U.S. since the 1980s has resulted in the devastation of poor and African-American communities across America, creating a cycle of imprisonment, economic failure, and violence that has been cleverly blamed on the drugs themselves.  As Hart demonstrates both statistically and anecdotally in High Price, it is not drug use or addiction that has caused the community he grew up in to fray, but the unequal penalties and uneven enforcement of draconian drug laws that specifically target African-American and other marginal communities (the poor, the uneducated, the rural).  This book stands as a corrective to those stereotypes.

I hear Portugal is nice this time of year.

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Of Moss and Women

ImagePoor Elizabeth Gilbert.  She wrote one sensational best-seller (good for her, by the way) and now, no matter what she writes and how meticulously researched, emotionally precise, and just plain good it is, nobody can let her forget that she once wrote a book that has been relegated to the denigrated category of popular literature.  It’s a shame that not one reviewer (at least, that I could find) of her latest novel, The Signature of All Things, was able to refrain from mentioning, often with a hint of malice, her previous success.  Janet Maslin, in The New York Times, couldn’t help but speculate that the heroine of her new novel, Alma Whittaker, “would never have read the 19th-century equivalent of Ms. Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.”  Oh, please.

It’s a shame because The Signature of All Things is terrific.  As anyone who reads this blog probably knows by now, I have a weakness for a good 19th-century novel, and Gilbert’s story seems to take its cues both from the novel of manners and the adventure novel as it follows Alma, whose life spans most of the century.  Incidentally, another critique that seems to repeat in several published reviews regards the implausibility of the adventure part of the plot, which seems to me to be a stretch.   First, people, it’s fiction – implausible things are allowed, even supposed, to happen when you make things up – and second, have you not read any other novels ever?  Because, say, Around the World in Eighty Days doesn’t seem very plausible either, but it is so good that people still read it more than a hundred years after it was published.  And no one except a very fusty scholar indeed would ever bother to read a book review that was more than a hundred years old.  So there.  Elizabeth Gilbert 1, reviewers 0.

I’m a huge sucker for exactly this kind of novel, and it doesn’t disappoint.  It’s ambitious, detailed, dramatic, even delightfully implausible.  Implausibility, after all, is why I read fiction.  My real life is depressingly plausible enough.  It follows Alma, a character whom it is impossible to root against, for all her faults, through the turns and twists of an entire life, and nearly an entire century.  And what a century it was!  This novel focuses in particular on the world-changing scientific developments that shook the 19th century, culminating with Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection, through the marginal perspective of what used to be called a “polite botanist” – that is, a botanist with two X chromosomes.  Alma, confined to the boundaries of her father’s palatial estate by her mother’s dying wish and the customs of her time, becomes an expert in mosses, discovering a universe in the humblest, most overlooked plants.

ImageAlma, like her mosses, is an unassuming creature who contains worlds.  As she unlocks the secrets of moss we watch as she also unlocks human secrets: love, jealousy, regret, resentment, friendship, humility.  The parts of the novel that reviewers found implausible I found essential to this process, which is central to the momentum and meaning of the novel.  These plot twists seemed to form the crucible in which Alma’s character develops, necessary not only to the plot and forward motion of the novel but also to its slow internal flowering, the blossoming of human understanding and universal sympathy that good books offer a reader.  Perhaps part of what reviewers saw as implausibility, other than some of the wilder plot elements, was the way in which Alma became a kind of feminist hero by the end of the novel, but this seemed to me to be one of its strengths, in imagining, or reimagining, the kind of life that has always been absent from history.

One other note on the discomfort this book seemed to cause in its official readers: Gilbert’s depiction of sex, sexuality, and gender here is far more fluid, and less bounded, than our culture likes it to be.  I can’t help but wonder if “implausibility” is just code for “this does not fit into any category I have ever known and therefore I don’t like it.”  As a contrarian in these matters, I rather appreciated the novel’s attempt to normalize behavior and desires that both within and outside of the context of the story might be unclassifiable, like, perhaps, a never-before-seen species of moss.

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