Sunday, May 24, 2009

Marge Piercy and Zionism

Corrupting Power

Rereading Marge Piercy's He, She and It about a year ago, I was moved to writing her a mash note. Piercy’s work has always engaged me, but for the last few years, focusing on her poetry, I have neglected revisiting her novels.

Piercy is sometimes lyrical, but more often her poetry is a rare combination of grit, mystery and authenticity. This seems a result of integrity more than anything else, a loyalty to feeling, a passion for justice and a dislaying of both profoundity and desire. Piercy writes as I wish to write.

I am near certain that I will never be quite so reliably present, frank and loving as Piercy seems to me. But sometimes, while reading her, it feels almost sufficient to me that I can recognize those qualities in someone else.

In Piercy’s best stuff—in the poem “Joy Road and Livernois,” in her most feminist poetry, in which she celebrates fertility and menopause, self-knowledge and passionate commitment, in her Jewishness, which seems more than ethnicity, but other than pure faith, and in her novels, I find language that moves me as beauty sometimes moves me. But I am not seduced by it, I am awakened. This isn’t an experience of perfumes and curves and grace and artful drapery; this from Piercy is the reliable uplift I experience in the presence of my closest friends and of my real life partner. It is warmth and it is steel.

The paragraph in He, She and It that moved me to stop reading and start writing the original draft of this post is on page 113 of my Fawcett Crest paperback edition.

“From that moment on, Joseph loves Chava, but he is ashamed of his love. He is a golem of clay. How could any woman embrace him? He could not give her children. If he should touch her, he is terrified he would bruise her flesh that is as light as a petal to him. He would crush her as he crushed the narcissus he tried to pick on the bank of the Vlatava. He knows that the Maharal, whom he always longs to please, whom he cannot help but consider his father, would never forgive him. He cannot bear to imagine the anger of the Maharal if he should ever touch Chava. But Chava is the sun of his day, his rose of light. Whenever she is called out for a birth, he walks with her and he waits outside, all night if necessary, until the dawn renders the ghetto as safe as it ever is,”

This is not even my favorite paragraph on the page, let alone in the book. But it is the point where I finally felt I had to stop reading Piercy for a moment and write to or about her.

Though there are no politicians in her books, or none that come to mind, Piercy is always political. Her best characters, her leading women, mostly, are deeply political and heroic without any desire to be that way. Their values are earthy, global, relational and, sometimes against their individual will, profoundly empathic.

In one short passage, Piercy lays out a most succinct argument about the limitations of what we really know compared to what we think we know. On page 77, the aging Malkah speaks to her granddaughter Shira.

“The great whales—we had just about killed off the last of them before we began to translate their epic and lyric poetry. Were they people? Were the apes who learned to communicate in sign language intelligent beings? Was Hermes [their long-dead, but unforgotten cat] a real presence?” Is it too much of a stretch to note that this passage proposes that creating and understanding poetry is always a matter of someone’s, if not everyone’s, survival?

Piercy’s character Yod, a cyborg, possesses a dignity and integrity that makes him the clear equal of human beings; he makes the same essential claim on our respect and sympathy. His emergence into consciousness is at least as traumatic for him as the birth moment is for babies. Yod tells Shira that he was flooded in a single moment with more data than he could possibly absorb and process. It was the trauma of that moment, he speculates, that doomed earlier attempts to create a functioning cyborg, fatally overwhelming and overloading their nascent circuits.

It is Yod’s fate to struggle with the same basic challenges with which humans also struggle. He is ignored, exploited and lonely, and fated to wrestle with his own version of the human condition. Yod must teach himself or learn from others how to overcome his isolation, how to negotiate the conditions of his existence, how and who to love, how to judge when his moment of personal sacrifice arrives.

For me, reading Piercy is a great intellectual adventure, as exciting to me as Talmudic study is purported to be. Yod has an analogue in Piercy’s story, the “un-man,” the golem Joseph, created in early 17th Century Prague by Rabbi Judah Loew (the Maharal). One of the rabbi’s kabbalah students is a scientist, David Gans, who is also a colleague (as much as a Jew of the time could be) of the astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler.

Gans, Kepler and Brahe discuss Giordano Bruno, who had recently been burned at the stake by Roman Catholic inquisitors trying to force Bruno to recant his theories asserting that truth is relative to the position of the observer. “It’s a hazardous business imposing truth,” says Gans. “The Maharal says we can never arrive at truth if we fear discussion. We must attack falsehood, but only after we have given it leave to speak.”

The passage reminds me of Henry, an old friend of mine (from whom I am now estranged) who is locked in bitter struggle with the rabbi and congregation of a temple in Ann Arbor, Mich. Henry believes that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the existence of Israel as a Jewish theocratic state, is the major cause of conflict in the Middle East; the prime cause, even, of the devastating American attack on Iraq. It is a point that he has tried to make by presenting his personal account of the conditions of life for Palestinians living under occupation. But the rabbi of the temple whom he first approached, seeking only an opportunity to make a presentation, denied him. Henry’s response was to organize a silent vigil at the synagogue on Saturday mornings.

Nothing Henry wishes to say or do falls outside traditional Jewish notions of valid discussion. But it is clear that the rabbi who denied him does not share the values of the Maharal. Perhaps Henry’s claims are false, but “we must attack falsehood” after we have permitted its expression, not before.

Though she never mentions Palestine or Palestinians in He, She and It, Piercy’s book is full of implicit observations about the injustice that accompanied the creation and are part of the maintenance of the state of Israel in its current form.

“The Maharal abhors violence…he says no nation has a right to dominate or rule another. Each people has their own road, their own destiny to fulfill. The world is imperfect and requires repair so long as any people is under the rule of another (page 315).”

This belief of the Maharal reflects a traditional Jewish understanding of the obligation called tikkun olam, the obligation to heal the world. Less than one hundred pages later, Malkah, a 21st century computer whiz, reflects on the same subject.

“…my part was to read the poem by Mara Schleimann that everybody but the Orthodox use these days, about the heritage we share now of having a nation in our name as stupid and as violent as other nations: a lament for a lost chance, a botched redemption, a great repair, tikkun olam, gone amiss.”

It is a striking thing to imagine that the unjust use of Jewish power, which historically has been something Jews have wielded only against others within their own community, has become an ethnic and nationalist power used to expropriate and oppress non-Jews. But that is precisely Piercy’s message here.

Zionism in the 19th Century was just another minority political tendency in European Jewish communities, which seemed to sow and cultivate political theories with a frequency inversely proportionate to Jewish powerlessness in the larger universe. But in the 21st Century Zionism has become a false god, an idolatrous nationalist celebration that dooms the history, plagues the present and crushes the hopes of Palestinians, the people whose circumstances and fate Jews, above all others, should be lamenting.


1 comment:

  1. Hi, Jeff,

    Just want to say that I share your love for Marge Piercy's work. She brings together so much, so elegantly, and with such fierce tenderness. I also especially love her "Gone to Soldiers."

    Hey, I also owe you an email. Am currently digging out but wanted to take a peek at your fine blog.

    All best, Margaret