Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Equivocation, An Independence Day Gift

Today is Israel's Independence Day. For reasons I understand only dimly, I had the impulse to usher it in by listening once again to Zadie Smith’s marvelous, yet finally vexing lecture about the acquisiton of—dare I use the word?—identity; a lecture she delivered at the New York Public Library honoring the New York Review’s Robert Silvers—a lecture you can listen to here or read as an essay here.

Smith’s argument, so precisely and gently wrought, explores the ways we acquire voices through our lifetimes, for writers, crucially, early in one’s lifetime. We think we are merely "adding" experience when we come to live in a new place, or work to gain a discipline. But like Eliza Doolittle, we actually transform ourselves into something hybrid; we come to see the self-conscious complication of the self, the navigation from voice to voice, discourse to discourse, as a surprisingly and sadly precious form of sovereignty. 

Smith’s words carry a particular charge for me, I confess, since I began to experience this exhilarating sadness writing for Bob Silvers in the early 1970s, exploring Israel, whose Hebrew was making me over, yet writing—largely thanks to him—in an English I barely knew was in me. Most people in Israel have come from or seem quasi-officially haunted by somewhere else. Anyway, Smith puts the matter touchingly. She boils things down, finally, to a "little theory":

The first stage in the evolution is contingent and cannot be contrived. In this first stage, the voice, by no fault of its own, finds itself trapped between two poles, two competing belief systems. And so this first stage necessitates the second: the voice learns to be flexible between these two fixed points, even to the point of equivocation. Then the third stage: this native flexibility leads to a sense of being able to ‘see a thing from both sides.’ And then the final stage, which I think of as the mark of a certain kind of genius: the voice relinquishes ownership of itself, develops a creative sense of disassociation in which the claims that are particular to it seem no stronger than anyone else's

Smith’s ostensible subject, here, is Barack Obama, the writer turned politician turned statesman. Her touchstone is Shakespeare, the master of seeing things from both sides, the master of “equivocation.” I won’t say more about how she puts them both together except to say the effect is mesmerizing and the associations unforgettable. Finally, she brings us to what she calls a “doleful conclusion,” that people like Shakespeare—like Obama, perhaps—are not likely to be good politicians because they will finally lack a kind of political bravery. 

She always wanted such people in politics, she says, but believes that to see things from many sides, worse, to be aware that one does, will tend to make one incapable of conviction. “There are many forms of heroism in Shakespeare [himself],” Smith quotes the great critic Stephen Greenblatt, “but ideological heroism—the fierce, self-immolating embrace of an idea or institution—is not one of them.”

I SEE WHAT Zadie Smith is saying. But as I listened to her through my ear buds, tossing in my Jerusalem bed, agreeing with every word of her premise, I felt a fierce anger welling up by the time of her conclusion. For I think she is wrong, terribly wrong, to depict people with hard-won, self-conscious human sympathy as objects of political pathos. She says, quoting Thomas Macaulay about Lord Halifax, "that intellectual peculiarities which make his writings valuable frequently impeded him in the contests of active life." Presumably, it would be hopeless for someone like Smith to take on someone like Dick Cheney. But would it, really? What was Obama's speech on race if not something very like this, the power of seeing things from both sides against the power of creepy intolerance?

The point is, Obama took things another obvious step, which Smith might be seeing so much more clearly if she were waking up in Jerusalem and not in New York or London this morning. The step is "an idea or institution" which makes two-sidedness legal, even culturally admirable; a civilized way of life to be fiercely embraced, if not in a self-immolating way, then in the stubborn and brave way Obama does. Perhaps I am getting carried away, but what about fighting for this thing writers from Locke to Franklin to Mill called "liberty"?

Its “ideological heroes” do not seem so heroic after they have won. But what about the times victory doesn't seem assured? Lincoln, Adam Gopnik touchingly shows, was a writer in Smith's sense. What, in our own lifetimes, about writers who fought fascism, like Orwell and Koestler? (Obama, inhabiting his own dream-city, never fails to remind us about his grandfather, after all.) There is something deliciously feckless about Smith's self-presentation. But imagine the ferocity she'd produce if someone told her she were not entitled to her delicious fecklessness, say, if a father tried to marry her off, or a general ordered her to shell the next village. Equivocation can, after all, be training for resistence.
  
WHICH BRINGS ME back to where I am typing these words. Victory, here, seems less and less assured. So let me celebrate Independence Day with my favorite tribute to Hebrew equivocation, Shalom Chanoch's song of songs, "Good Troubles," which like the "Song of Songs," produces the kind of free spirits who are rather embattled these days. Listen to the song here. The words translate something like this:

In my town, there were two graces,
Two graces, lovely twins.
They always looked so alike,
So alike, these twins.
And my God, how I loved them both,
This was mine, and that was mine.
Thus came my way good troubles.
They were two, and did not know,
She about her, and she about her.

One I drove to the mountain,
To see the dawning of the sun,
And the other to the forests,
To see how the sun disappears.
And my God, how I loved them both,
This was mine, and that was mine.
Thus came my way good troubles.
They were two, and did not know,
She about her, and she about her.

How the days are passing fast,
And how the night goes its way, shorter and shorter.
And the angels are already hinting to me:
What shall I do,
Which one shall I choose?
And my God, how I loved them both,
This was mine, and that was mine.
Thus came my way good troubles.
They were two, and did not know,
She about her, and she about her.


(Words by Shimrit Or, music by Shalom Chanoch.)