Saturday, July 11, 2015

Paradox, irony and ambiguity in the service of humanity and survival

Jonathan Rosen's piece in The Atlantic, entitled, Does Milan Kundera still matter?, writes:
Accepting the Jerusalem Prize in 1985, he (Czech-born writer, Kundera) praised Israel for giving one of its highest awards to an international novel and paying tribute, despite betrayal, to 'a Europe conceived not as territory but as culture.' This, he made clear, is more than Europe deserves:
If the Jews, even after Europe so tragically failed them, nonetheless kept faith with that European cosmopolitanism, Israel, their little homeland finally regained, strikes me as the true heart of Europe- a peculiar heart outside the body.
Here is a paradox worthy of Kafka. It takes a little homeland regained to house a larger trans-national dream. Europe meanwhile, has become a shrunken wanderer. (Jonathan Rosen, Does Milan Kundera still matter? The Atlantic, July/August, 2015, p. 42
Ripe for the picking, these thoughts!
A geography conceived not as territory but as culture....
A heart outside the body....
A keeping faith with their betrayers by those inexorably and tragically betrayed....
A 'little' heart capable of international cosmopolitanism...
A continent become a shrunken wanderer....
So many paradoxes!
In a North American culture whose landscape is overrun with parks filled with stereotypes, worn-out idols of conventional thinking and acting, Kundera's imagination flows like a fresh spring from underground. We live in a world in which big bests small, rich bests poor, presence bests absence, extreme power obliterates vulnerability, sun bests shade, white bests black, competition trumps collaboration, literal bests symbol, cause-effect trumps paradox, explanation bests ambiguity, clarity bests confusion, skill bests critical thought, and science bests imagination.
We have become drugged on a diet of stereotypes morphing into dogma, as if there were no other way of looking at ourselves or our world. And our delusion, our complacency in living "comfortably" with these perversions of the whole of reality, reductionisms really, threaten, like the missiles we drop on ISIS targets, to obliterate the much more complex and often irreducible issues, masking them with the mundane and the superficial.
Perhaps prophets like Kundera can help us to tease the scales from our eyes, and to see our country as a culture, perhaps, our civilization as a community, our issues as our opportunities, and our fears as the seeds of our dreams and imagination.
And, as usual in history, it will be the writers who give us both the sign posts and the courage to explore mental territories heretofore abandoned, like so many factories across North America.
Of course, there will be howling and desperate cries of, "STOP!" in the midst of any reconfiguring of our world views, and our ideologies, given the deep discomfort of change. Each individual, not to mention each silo of protected turf (academic, political, economic, sociological, theological, ethical/moral, linguistic, cultural), will rise up to protect its "identity"...as if such an identity were engraved in marble. The world collectively and nationally today spends more on "defence" of its identity, territory, ideology and current status than it would take to feed all the starving people.
Irony, and metaphor, both the cornerstones of literature (with thanks to Frye) do not belong in our culture. They have no place in a world consumed with and by the transformation of ideas into commodities, the acceptance of human lives as instruments of profit, the perception of "value" as reduced to the size of salaries, mansions, investment accounts and the title and sphere of influence of power, except as vehicles of enhancement of those idols.
Writers have, ironically, placed words of deep and somewhat frightening observation in characters like clowns, the hobo, the vagrant and the dispossessed. Wisdom, after all, is not the exclusive domain of the powerful; indeed, it is those very powerful who have abandoned or sacrificed their more creative and eccentric selves to the mannequins of social and political acceptance. A culture of compliant and co-dependent clones addicted to their own narcissistic needs, regardless of the continent on which they live, the language they speak or the corporation or government they purport to lead, is still, at base, a culture that compromises the truth, and the potential for collaboration.
Of course, there will be legitimate arguments that difference, friction, even fractiousness generates both heat and light, often illuminating the darkness of the current tunnel we are all walking. It is the nature of that tension that merits our attention here.
Shouting matches of the deaf, cacophonies of noise supplanting rhythms and melodies of the imagination, shadow-boxing matches of rhetoric supplanting authentic and honest negotiations....these are the tools in the kitbag of the literalists, as if winning the moment is all that matters. Making the sale, winning the election, completing the merger, cutting the budget, raising the share values, securing the signing bonus....these are not the footings for a sustainable culture, nor even a culture capable of sustaining the health impacts of such a 'theology'. And it has become a new form of a theocracy, this worship of the processes of personal profit at the expense of the interests of the whole of the global family.
The west decries those nations whose culture exemplifies what the west calls a theocracy, as if to worship some deity were more dangerous than to worship the acquisition of profit, through all available means. Of course, the pursuit of any  belief system must not and cannot include violence against those whom that belief system considers infidels.
It is the preservation of infidels that could be the saving grace of all the violence that we see erupting everywhere.
It is the "heart outside the body" image that Kundera describes Israel outside the body of Europe that rises to consideration. As there appears to be at best the atrophy of the "heart inside the body" in North America, can we look elsewhere for a heart outside the body? And if so, where might we look?
One would hope that we could resume the search within. However, within the religious communities, the fights over specific issues like abortion, gay rights, the deployment of military solutions, the denial of the human complicity in global warming, the champion of the death penalty and the racism against minorities and different ethnicities, we are left without any credence in that collective voice. Could we look to another country? Which one strikes us as a potential for that role?
Where is there a country that beats with the passion and the credentials for the dispossessed?
Where is there an institution that beats with the authenticity of a perception that embraces the least embraceable, if and when ones like the WHO (World Health Organization) is not prepared for a global epidemic, that everyone knows will impact the dispossessed the most severely?
Where is there a legislature that embraces, really embraces the plight of the underbelly of the society that elected that legislature? Or is the manipulation of the voter so deep and embedded in our accepted definition and modus operandi of the government process that, once counted, those votes no longer matter, and only those who funded the campaigns of the successful candidates have a real voice in the decision-making of that legislature?
Could Israel, herself, be or become the heart of the planet? And even if she could and would, would the rest of the world be willing to acknowledge that heart? Of course, the rising tide of anti-Semitism linked to the escalating violence of the Islamic terrorism jihad would tend to blind the eyes of millions to such a proposition.
We tend, unfortunately, to pin hopes far too high to succeed onto the epaulets of a single person: Mandela in the face of apartheid, Martin Luther King in the face of segregation, Obama in the post-racial but still highly racist America, Churchill in the face of the Third Reich and previously military leaders like Napoleon and Alexandria in the distant past. Today, even the Prime Minister of both Greece and Germany have significant influence on the outcome of the Greek debt crisis. Giving a face to the opposition to what we perceive as an evil monster, (as well as to the evil monster himself) may provide a portrait of the strength of the opposition, the potential of its success and the likelihood of achieving the defeat of the evil. At some point, however, through such literary devices as irony, paradox and metaphor, we may come to a shared perception of the good within the evil, and the evil within the good, the heart within the body and the body containing the heart, the rich being poor in many ways including their desperate spirit, the poor being rich in many ways including the validity and the reality of their perception of the world's issues and the resolutions of those issues.
We may even come to see the enemy as our friend, not in the Orwellian sense of Newspeak, manipulated for the purposes of those in power, and we may even come to see, in our friends, the potential for betrayal, and then to experience that betrayal and be once again, like Israel, taking on the best of the betrayer as an integral part of our identity.
Even that would be a step toward forgiveness, the missing grace from the lives of billions!

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