Reinventing Politics, With Language
Rituals of Truce and the Other Israeli
By Benjamin Hollander
Parrhesia Press, 137 pages, $12.95.
By Benjamin Hollander
Beyond Baroque Books, 220 pages, $12.
‘This is the time for political invention,” writes Benjamin Hollander halfway through “Rituals of Truce and the Other Israeli,” his imaginative meditation on the impasse between the Israelis and Palestinians: “There is no other time.” Look at the way the last sentence is phrased and you will see that he is right. For us there is no time but the present. This is our time, our only time. What shall we make of it?
Hollander’s approach to political invention originates in poetry. Though “Rituals of Truce” is a very readable collage of prose texts, memories, speculations and — yes — gags, it carries at its heart the ideal of so much vanguard poetry of the last century. It dreams of a rhythmic breakthrough to something beyond the dead certainties of our selves.
Hollander’s own identity is complicated. Born in Israel, he was 6 when he moved to the United States in 1958. Neither completely American nor authentically Israeli, he finds himself enmeshed in the odd and apparently central Jewish dream that he is Ariel Sharon, “the one in almost every Jew — even the one for whom Ariel Sharon is a nightmare — whose bunkered identity has been shaped and manipulated by fears of being sold out by the world for oil and which the insanity of his nationalist mythologies have conditioned him to assume and defend because he has come to trust no one.” And recognizing this vast contention in himself — his “native accent that has lost the vocabulary to speak” — Hollander asks, who can you trust when discussing the Middle East? Whose rights trump?
To get beyond this, Hollander suggests that we broaden our experience and receptivity. This is where the poetry and invention come in. Hollander orchestrates a sometimes funny, sometimes poignant set of quotations, dreams and fantasies about Israel, Palestine, the United States, terror and his own solitary self. He constructs a kind of fugue that attempts through juxtaposition and opposition to dissolve the “bunkered identities” it finds. Hollander’s methods and aspirations are very postmodern to be sure — the tutelary spirits of “Rituals of Truce” are the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and the German litterateur Walter Benjamin — but he both lightens and deepens this tradition by adding an oddly affecting touch of slapstick humor. At critical points he invokes not only Groucho Marx and Abbott and Costello, but also Donald Duck.
Hollander aims to catch the distant hum of possibility. Hollander’s insistence that we be vigilant, not only with the paranoid watchfulness of fear, but more importantly, with an open attentiveness to what could come to be, informs the peculiar structure of the somewhat forbidding “Levinas and the Police,” in his most recent book of poetry, “Vigilance.” “Levinas and the Police,” owes its uncommon length — it is over 130 pages long — to the fact that most of its lines consist of one syllable or less. This leads the poet to divide most of his words into their component parts:
While such an experiment could easily fail, its effects in this poem are contradictory and quite literally stunning. You want to speed up (to get the end of the word, if not of the sentence) and yet you are compelled to slow down and actually take note of all the meaningful units that make up sense. The result is hypnotic, if somewhat frustrating and disorienting. And this, of course, is the whole point.
Hollander hopes that through such attentiveness and such disorientation we can find a way to think differently about ourselves and about our adversaries. Such an aspiration is flatly utopian in a very precise way — the poet claims that we can effect a radical break with the catastrophic repetitions that have marked our collective pasts “by transforming our imagination of history” and in so doing move beyond them.
It is easy to imagine someone dismissing this claim as both naïve and abstract. “Rituals of Truce” is about cognitive boundaries, not international borders, nor solutions “on the ground.” In the end, on the risk of being reductive, “Rituals of Truce” is interested in consciousness, and consciousness always looks wifty to political scientists and would-be realists.
But Hollander is not proposing new political inventions. He is imagining what a philosopher would call “the conditions of possibility” of such inventions — what would be necessary before a real political invention could be thought of, let alone thought through. And there’s the rub. Alienation, that fine modernist stance, is the cause of the all-important attentiveness that Hollander proposes. It is not the result. You have to have achieved a certain freedom from the fixed coordinates of your identity before you are willing to undergo the reorientation that Hollander’s work describes. To put this in political terms: You have to feel that the impasse you have reached is due in part to the limitations of your own approach and not just to the sheer evil or recalcitrance of your enemies. Or, to put this in religious terms: you have to accept the notion of other, equally valid, interpretations of revelation. You must undergo a willing suspension of your own belief.
Hollander’s fine and deeply humane piece of writing could — should — go further. The times really require a political invention that convinces people that political invention is indeed required. Religion will be a central part of this. Hollander is good at rethinking Jewish messianism — the very engine of so much of the settler’s movement. Yet among its real and imaginary voices, “Rituals of Truce” does not include any Islamists, only secular Palestinians. The book was written before the election of Hamas, and before this last summer’s war with Hezbollah, so the omission is more or less understandable. It does not negate Hollander’s project at all. In the context of the moment, the task that “Rituals of Truce” sets becomes even riskier and even more important.
David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.