In defence of Wagner’s Israeli enthusiasts

Imagine a history rewritten: would it be a victory for the Nazis if they were forced to live side by side with the Jews they most vehemently disliked? Of course it wouldn’t be, and though it upsets and astounds me that today I have to share oxygen with people who hold views so unpalatable it makes me wince, part of my support for multiculturalism is heightened in the knowledge that we live in a society where to be law abiding means respecting people of cultures and sharing experiences together; and there is not a thing racists of any colour can do about it.

I think about this today, as I see news of outrage that an Israeli orchestra should be able to play a festival in Bayreuth, Southern Germany, dedicated to the music of Wagner.

The great granddaughter of Wagner, Katharina, who was to visit Israel to formally invite the orchestra, will now have to cancel her visit – which she said was an opportunity to “heal wounds”.

According to a report in The Guardian, Holocaust survivor groups are saying “it was inexplicable that the orchestra would break a decades’ old unofficial boycott to perform music by Hitler’s favourite composer, who also held antisemitic views”.

Furthermore, Israeli historian and Holocaust survivor Noah Klieger, on the topic of the boycott, told the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle: “It’s a sentimental ban. As long as some of us are still alive, people should refrain from imposing Wagner on us.”

Far be it for me to disagree with holocaust survivors; so I’ll quote from two of our most loved media figures: Stephen Fry and Slavoj Zizek.

Fry recently gave a question and answer session at the Wagner Society following the showing of his film Wagner and Me where he said: “You can’t allow the perverted views of pseudo-intellectual Nazis to define how the world should look at Wagner. He’s bigger than that, and we’re not going to give them the credit, the joy of stealing him from us.”

My point about the Nazis living side by side with the Jews relates very closely to Fry’s point; that Hitler appreciated Wagner should not stop Jews from appreciating Wagner too – and certainly not at the order of certain Israelis – as this only serves to divide those able to enjoy good art. But further still, as Wagner was an anti-Semite himself, nothing should please us more that orchestral representatives of the Jewish state make steps to end the taboo which allows Nazis to define how the world looks at Wagner.

In a piece called Why is Wagner worth saving? Zizek vents his criticism on what he calls the “historicist commonplace” that says “in order to understand a work of art, one needs to know its historical context”. To this end, Zizek notes “too much of a historical context can blur the proper contact with a work of art”.

Zizek claims that there is the temptation when listening to Wagner to imagine that every sub-text is anti-Semitic, but, using the examples of Parsifal and the Ring, tries to prove this isn’t always correct. In the Ring according to Zizek, it is not Alberich’s renunciation of love for power that is the source of all evil, but rather Wotan’s disruption of the natural balance, “succumbing to the lure of power, giving preference to power over love”, which spells doom, meaning also that evil does not come from the outside, but is complicit with Wotan’s own guilt. With Parsifal, the elitist circle of the pure-blooded is not jeopardised by external contaminators such as copulation by the Jewess Kundry, but rather from inside; “it is Titurel’s excessive fixation of enjoying the Grail which is at the origins of the misfortune”.

The point being is Wagner “undermines the anti-Semitic perspective according to which the disturbance always ultimately comes from outside, in the guise of a foreign body which throws out of joint the balance of the social organism”.

The overarching thesis of Zizek is that the anti-Semitic sub-text is not always appropriate when engaging with Wagner, and if this art is separate from the evil of the early twentieth century, then there is reason to save Wagner.

The Wagner boycott is one example of denying the world a great artist, and allowing the Nazis a small victory. The point is Wagner can, and must, be enjoyed by anyone who wishes to, regardless of race, if not for the reason that he would’ve disliked this himself.

Elvis Costello and the Guilt Society

Elvis Costello will receive a great deal of praise from boycotting Israel during his tour by pro-Palestinian groups and peace activists, while others will accuse the singer of harbouring a form of anti-Semitism that has now become acceptable by the political establishment under the guise of anti-Zionist rhetoric.

Both perceptions of Costello, which are inevitable, are wrong.

Costello wrote this on his site:

It has been necessary to dial out the falsehoods of propaganda, the double game and hysterical language of politics, the vanity and self-righteousness of public communiqués from cranks in order to eventually sift through my own conflicted thoughts.

But Costello is neither an anti-Semite nor someone who truly understands the proper coordinates of championing peace – this episode ought to reveal.

It is a strange phenomenon that those who are branded vulnerable can only do wrong where the cause is metropolitanism, consumer capitalism and the west itself. When a bourgeois liberal utters this they have achieved what Pascal Bruckner has recently identified as ‘guilt’ for which he further elaborates is a ‘tyranny’. What Bruckner means by this is in an age after empire, power relations have gone from rich west dominating an other, to a west stricken with guilt and the other perceived by them as justifiably agitated. The worst expression of this is when one who this bourgeois liberal considers vulnerable commits something unthinkable, lets say a terrorist act or genital mutilation, and is justified on the grounds that the west deserved what it was getting.

It is a guilt that does two things; firstly it excuses the worst acts in a way that is nothing short of masochism and then justifies them with a logic that doesn’t fit today (it doesn’t recognise that some crimes are committed with the world’s injustices as a false cover); secondly it continues that kind of patronising conception of the other that would have been commonplace in the age of Empire (the idea that some foreigners cannot cause destruction without their being a cause emanating from the west – this position, of course, is as self-righteous as it is ridiculous and naive).

Disliking the government in Israel for its criminal behaviour is fine, but many countries in the Middle East have terrible track records. The difference with Israel is that, for some people, it is European enough to show your disliking of it guilt-free, it’s crimes are crimes of choice, as opposed to the crimes of countries on its border, who commit crimes not out of choice, but mere causality.

Of course not all anti-Zionism is a cover for anti-Semitism; anyone who thinks that is foolish. But Israel, like countries in West Europe, are considered rich and decadent enough to have choices in the crimes it commits, and therefore it is ok to dislike them, whereas it is out of guilt that some justify the crimes of other countries, a perception so warped that it fails to realise the hurt it causes trying to right wrongs.

When to be pro-Israeli is to overcompensate for anti-Semitism

My old psychology dictionary of terms informs me that overcompensation can be ‘a Freudian defence mechanism, whereby an individual attempts to offset weakness in an area of their lives by focusing on another aspect of it.’ I had thought to look this up after thinking about the recent spell of disavowed anti-Semite, Israel supporters.

First I thought back to those English Defence League marches, where 2 things are promised every time; that an Israeli flag will appear to show solidarity with Israelis over Muslims (like it was a simple choice between the two), and a couple of beered up scummies will produce the fascist salute (for examples see here and here).

Second I remembered Michal Kaminski, the Polish MEP who leads the Conservatives new EU grouping, and his of pro-Israeli rhetoric to confront his anti-Semitic past (for examples see here and here).

And lastly I remembered Nick Griffin as he stumbled over his words on Question Time tell the audience that his party was the only one to give full support to Israel and their right to exist during its clashes with Gaza, or more precisely:

“[National Socialists in UK] loathe me because I have brought the British National Party from being, frankly, an anti-Semitic and racist organisation into being the only political party which, in the clashes between Israel and Gaza, stood full square behind Israel’s right to deal with Hamas terrorists.”

Interestingly with the last example, Griffin was one of those anti-Semitic members of the British National Party. He was the author of a pamphlet entitled Who are the Mindbenders (have a guess, go on) in which Jewish names are listed to testify that Jews control the media. Grffin’s argument is to suggest that Jews are responsible for indoctrinating people to think that criticising Jewish people is automatically anti-Semitic, appreciation for multiculturalism is fine, homosexuality is not “creepy” and Britishness is racist.

This of course is not “saleable” (to use Griffin’s own words) so Griffin appeals to using language like left-liberal controlled, meaning, of course, much the same (the words he uses ratifies more with people who also think the BBC runs on a bias, but use of the word Jews may run contrary to many “patriots” negative view of the Nazis).

Interesting it is that these people, especially the latter two, choose pro-Israeli, or Zionist, sentiment to undercut their otherwise anti-Semitic image. Not unique however.

Adolf Eichmann, the man known as ‘the architect of the Holocaust’, a Nazi who managed to juggle two seemingly inharmonious positions as anti-Semite and Zionist, whose aim was to channel as many European Jews as possible to Palestine. Eichmann was encouraged by one Baron Van Mildenstein – a man who wanted to forge a collaboration between Nazis and Zionists – to study Jewish society and history so as better to understand the Jewish enemy. Eichmann did so, earning him a special place in the Reich. Before long Eichmann changed his mind on promoting a strong Jewish state, but nonetheless his Zionism was situated on the idea that the Jews belonged elsewhere, and that a small section of the Middle East, mandated by the British, would be where that place was sited.

The Final Solution was an act that aimed to destroy the Jewish race from the root, an act most favoured by Nazis then and now, but Eichmann’s Zionism – before his part in the Holocaust – was to separate Jews from other Europeans, something Eichmann himself felt was borne, not out of anti-Semitism, but, on the basis that races can not mix, particularly the Jewish race. He also denied turning from a Saul to a Paul on the matter, wanting to secure Jewish racial particularism, or, simply, one place for Jews and a European place for aryans.

The charge that an individuals pro-Israeli words should write off an anti-Semitic history is a most naive way of disavowal, but nonetheless, rather typical behaviour of someone who is either in, or wants to be in, the political mainstream.

As Mehdi Hasan, New Statesman senior political editor, recently replied to Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, are we ‘really so naive [to think that] supporters of Israel can’t be anti-Semitic at the same time?’ The pro-Israeli overcompensation by the above should provide real answers to this question.

The God of Freud and the Jewish Homeland

I re-visited the Freud museum in South Hampstead today, and was also lucky enough to find a copy of the Guardian on the tube, so my post marries the two events. I was very interested in the Middle East peace/Israel-Palestine resumption stories, but I also had my head half stuck in a book closer to the subject of the day: Dr. Sigmund.

It is now commonplace in new atheist literature to hold Freud up as a cohort to the idea that religion is little more than a childish phase. And I suppose this is understandable since Freud’s early essay called The Future of Illusion calls religion just that: an illusion. But his position did take a huge modification in his later, maturer years.

Sam Harris, interestingly enough, in his book The End of Faith, rejected Freud as a psychoanalyst informed by Harris’ own neuroscientific background, but held in esteem Freud’s riposte on the notion of God being akin to a missing Father. What Harris did forget to mention was that it was neuroscience that informed Freud’s psychoanalytic base, and in fact, further, it was the shortfall of this discipline regarding the notion of hysteria that Freud was forced to drop neuroscience, or in other words, neuroscience could not go far enough to recognise the genesis of the hysterical mind.

Indeed Freud promoted a number of different stylistic attitudes toward the question of God, and these attitudes can be divided into two collectives, which I will now discuss. Freud’s view that the historical arrival of monotheism (which he attributes to Moses’ being an Egyptian priest of Akhenaten, and not, as is erroneously assumed, his being originally Hebrew. As such, in a letter he told Arnold Zweig “Moses created the Jews” and, in his last substantial book Moses and Monotheism stated that “it was not God who chose the Jews … but Moses”) meant that man’s relation to God “could recover the intimacy and intensity of the child’s relation to his father.” But at this stage, this reunion of man and a monotheistic God signified nothing but a childish illusion. As Ana-Maria Rizzuto pointed out in her excellent book Why Did Freud Reject God: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation from as early as his youth, Freud viewed God as a mere childhood creation, an element of the mental space in which to direct wishes (prompting his Father Jakob to present his son with a copy of the Philippson Bible, complete with a pleading dedication for Sigmund to part with his youthful scepticism). Freud suspected, in some later reflections of his case study on Sergei Pankejeff (better known as Wolf Man), that young people lose their religious beliefs as soon as their father’s authority breaks down”. In other words, that it was a sign of maturity to escape the domain of God (in direct contradiction to his Father’s message, written inside the bible gift previously mentioned, to “return to [God] in maturity”). Freud held this view until 1935 when a change became apparent in his manner. In private correspondence Freud started to acknowledge the intellectual qualities of God on thought and enquiry, after all the speculation of an absent property had immense benefits for abstract contemplation. Freud’s understanding of the concept of God changed from illusion to promoting sapience. Rather than bogging one down with idle introspection, the concept permitted investigation.

Two days into writing his last book on Moses, three secretaries visited Freud from the Royal Society who offered him the chance to sign the society’s charter book. A unique occasion, too, since it was only the king, an honorary member of the society, who had the book brought to him to sign, but on account of Freud being ill, an exception was made. As of then it was writ large that Freud joined the top names in scientific history, Darwin, Newton etc. So it was hardly surprising that Freud had felt some reservations about his present study, a speculative work that was supported only by limited evidence. In fact, its first reviewers were rather scathing about it. Martin Buber, for example, the Jewish theologian poured scorn on it as being “regrettable” and “groundless”. But many commentators with the privilege of hindsight, one being Mark Edmundson in his stimulating book The Death of Sigmund Freud, received the book as being “better disposed toward faith than any other of Freud’s prior work.” He elaborates “[t]he pleasures of sight, Freud insists, are intense, nearly instinctive pleasures … [and] to renounce the visible in the interest of the unseen is an enormously difficult human task … less intense, but more valuable in the long run”. That is to say, more intellectually valuable in the sense that the privileging of sensory perception was minimised in order to discern the abstract idea. For Freud, Moses probably struggled with the effort to believe in an invisible God when there were multitudinous amounts of idolatry religions at his beck and call. And this is why Freud held Moses in such high esteem, since his adherence to monotheism mirrors the correct process of human consciousness in general, from an infantile worship of the present thing, to the introspective rigour of mental labour (indicative of monotheism).

As we can see, Freud considered God for its mental utility function, and its timing was also interesting; just after Freud was forced to leave Vienna and antisemitism became a governmental policy of the Nazis. It was at this backfooting for the Jews that Freud became intimate with Egyptology. But what of Freud’s rather more intimate relationship with the Jewish homeland, via one of his most distinguished students.

I wonder if all the trouble regarding Palestine and Israel – which Obama may well be on the way to mending, and given his timing, when the Arab world is having its own doubts about Iran – would’ve occurred had Princess Marie Bonaparte achieved her original plans for European Jews circa 1945. Great granddaughter of Lucien Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, she was on speaking terms with Sigmund Freud, who referred to her as “our Princess”. She provided economic support for Freud to leave occupied territory and emigrate to England But although her philanthropy stopped there, her original plan was to purchase a section of southern California to be used as a Jewish homeland. All well and good, but imagine what would happen, if a few belligerent émigrés had decided that the original population of southern California were to be perceived as nothing more than second-class citizens at best, bullet fodder at worst. The course of history would have changed rapidly, and the last 60 years would’ve been a lot different.

Cornel West: The Modern day Griot (Part 1)

2009 marked the 100th year anniversary of the birth of Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, and January the 18th marked the date in which he was executed 14 years ago. Taha was a Sudanese liberal reform figure and believer in a version of progressive Islam. His vision of Islam – one in which maintained the equality of women and was dedicated to socialist republicanism – along with his protests regarding the imposition of sharia law stirred Sudan’s dictator Jaafer al-Nimeiri in the 1970’s and 80’s to the point that he, after efforts to curb his influence and ban his lectures, called for Taha’s blood.

Indeed this was to be the case, when on the 8th of January 1985 Taha, and four other comrades were put on trial for apostasy under section 96 of the Sudanese penal code. The decision was confirmed on January the 17th to execute Taha for his crimes, whereas Taha’s comrades were given the chance to appeal (provided they retracted their “apostasy”, which they promptly did). Taha was eventually put to death on January the 18th by hanging, before his body was taken to a desert location by Helicopter to be buried, reportedly in the west of Omdurman, Sudan’s largest city.

Taha’s message, expressed in his book “The Second Message of Islam”, was that the Koran had been revealed in two locations, firstly in Mecca where Muhammad and his followers were minorities, and in Medina where the city was brimming with Jews and Pagans. During his verses in Mecca, Muhammad promulgated a “peaceful persuasion,” whereas in Medina the verses are filled with rules and intimidations. The Medinan verses, the first message(s) of Islam, were directed to a whole community of early believers and not Muhammad alone, according to Taha. These messages were a sort of ‘historical postponement’ as George Packer puts it in his New Yorker article on Taha. It was the Meccan verses, the second message of Islam that would represent, for Taha in his revisionism, the perfect religion, an acceptance of equality and freedom that, in seventh-century Arabia, Muslims were ready for. This provided his grounds for a progressive Islam that the likes of Nimeiri refused to even speculate on.

In January, a two-day conference celebrating the 100th birth year of Taha at Baker University, in Kansas, USA, brought together a miscellany of important ideas that reflected the life and legacy of Taha. One of the speakers on the 18th was Dr. Cornel West of Princeton University. He, during his keynote address, called upon the audience to adopt the traits of ‘humility and love’ that encapsulated the mind of Taha. West considered some of today’s existing problems with the same character as Taha. On the question of Israeli-Palestine conflict West observed that “the spirit of Taha leads me to say: Why the relative silence on Gaza” in reference to what West considered to be the US’s refusal to speak out about the Israeli slaughter of the strip, from both Democrat and Republican camps.

The stylistic similarities in West and Taha’s work are quite clear; both have a radical streak to them, challenging the dominant forces in their society and the orthodoxy of their own religions. West’s Christianity is fused with a healthy dose of radical socialism, as was Taha’s Islam. But more than that, both actively sought to show that the existing powers have got their religions wrong. West’s America, as was with Taha’s Sudan, both use religious sentiment – or as West himself referred to it regarding America in his 2004 book Democracy Matters an “imperial Christianity, market spirituality … let’s-make-a-deal with God” mentality – to justify their wars on what they perceive to be an unholy society. In Republican America (or “the age of Ronald Reagon”, as West proclaimed that Obama’s presidency initiated the end to), the efforts to limit time on abortion, cap stem-cell research, and wage wars on foreign countries by ‘God’s own decree’ were all so-called expressions of Christian ideals. But for West, this is a peculiar use of Christianity, which, for him, should explore the problems that sexism, racism and hegemony can bring about in order to remove them. West’s first book Prophecy Deliverance in 1982 advocates the benefits of an African-American Christianity that draws its ethical dimensions from socialism and Marxism.

(Part 2 tomorrow)

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