May 13, 2010

Novelistic Scabs

Amitav Ghosh and Margaret Atwood decided to accept a literary prize in Israel. The prize, half a million dollar each, donated by an Israeli billionaire who owns photo booths, was to be handed to them at Tel Aviv University, which "boasts of 55 joint technological projects with the Israeli army", by war criminal Shimon Peres.

Both were asked by many individuals and organizations to refuse the ceremony. Among those who appealed to their better selves were Boycott From Within, Students from Gaza, Bricup and others. Not only did our acclaimed authors ignore these requests, but the two responded with petulance, dishonesty, and self-indulgence.

Amitav Ghosh explained that,
institutions of culture and learning must, in principle, be regarded as autonomous of the state. Or else every writer in America and Britain, and everyone who teaches in a British or American university, would necessarily be implicated in the Iraq war, and by extension, in Israel’s actions in Gaza and Palestine. Similarly every Indian writer and academic would also be complicit in the actions of the Indian government in areas of conflict.
Writers like Ghosh "must, in principle, be regarded as" capable of stringing words together logically. Hence, when they do not, one has to assume a failure of ethics rather than a failure of intelligence. It seems Ghosh is asserting that, if an institution is not independent from the state, than those who work for it or benefit from it are implicated in the crimes of the state if that state commits crimes. One can quibble with the strength of this rather simplistic thesis, but let us accept it here pro forma. Ghosh therefore argues that in order to avoid having to implicate writers and academics in the crimes of their state one must see cultural institutions as independent. That is, the question whether an institution is or is not independent, a question of fact, must be answered, according to Ghosh, not by factual examination, but based, essentially, on what is convenient to writers, that they may not be seen as implicated in the actions of their state. That is, Ghosh advocates that writers and academics, instead of engaging in a factual and moral analysis of their own specific situation, twist the facts to fit whatever exculpates them.

At least we know Ghosh took his own advice. After BRICUP disabused him of his idealistic misconceptions and pointed out that the question of the autonomy of the Tel Aviv University from the state of Israel, is neither a matter of principle nor merely "academic," the university being deeply implicated in the occupation in a thousand different ways, Ghosh simply ignored it, and the two repeated their claim in the prize speech.

A few sentences later in his apology, the writer "whose entire oeuvre seems to us an attempt to imagine how human beings survived the depredations of colonialism" (BRICUP) found his own "native informant," Sari Nusseibah, whom he quotes to justify ignoring the demand of the bulk of organized Palestinian civil society. The one good thing one can say about Ghosh is that his grappling with colonialism was fruitful. He learned how to talk to and about the natives like a colonialist. The sun really never set on the British Empire.

Margaret Atwood--wisely, given Ghosh's performance--chose to ignore the open letter from students in Gaza who reminded her that "although your books are not available in Gaza - -because Israel does not allow books, paper and other stationary in -- we are familiar with your leftist, feminist, overtly political writing."

The two however chose to dedicate the prize acceptance speech to criticizing the boycott appeal. Neither the Tel Aviv University that developed the DIME bombs used against civilians in Gaza, nor the state of Israel whose commitment to cultural openess does not include allowing atwood's books into Gaza, were taken to task, but the letter campaign asking her to refuse the prize was the target of their moral outrage. How noble!

What did the two great writers have to say? They set up a big, simple and false dichotomy:
Propaganda deals in absolutes: in Yes and No. But the novel is a creature of nuance: of perhaps, of maybe. It concerns itself, not with gods and demons, but with mortal people, with their flawed characters, their unsatisfactory bodies, their sufferings, their limited and often wrong choices; with the dubiousness of their own actions and the unfairness of their fates.
First question, does the dichotomy between the absoluteness of propaganda and the nuance of the novel belong to the genre of the propaganda or to the genre of the novel? In other words, is the distinction Ghosh and Atwood make a matter of "Yes and No," of either or, of complete heterogeneity, or does it allow for a nuanced attention to the murkiness of the actual, living writer? Do Atwood and Ghosh allow room for the writing of an engaged writer like Ghassan Kanafani, or do they dismiss his work as "propaganda"? What about Louis Ferdinand Celine? Was he a propagandist or a novelist? What about Emil Zola? Was Dostoevsky a novelist or a conservative Christian propagandist? Or both? In other words, isn't that grand distinction between propaganda and the novel, while no doubt valuable, somewhat self-serving in its "either or, yes or no" qulity, that is, itself an example of propaganda, defending through deception and exaggeration for the purity and the "above the fray"-ness of Atwood and Ghosh? Isn't it that what the two offer is not the truth of literature but the untruth of their own bad faith?

Atwood's visit to Tel Aviv was not, as she claimed, despite her being "sympathetic" to the plight of those who asked here to boycott. It was not, as she portrays it, a dilemma of choosing between two rights. Rather than a commitment to writers' rights, decided for her the lack of commitment to human ones. She went because she was in fact not sympathetic, except in the most banal way one sympathizes with a beggar for a split second in the street. To one letter she received Atwood replied:
I sympathize with the very bad conditions the people of Gaza are living through due to the blockade, the military actions, and the Egyptian and Israeli walls. Everyone in the world hopes that the two sides involved will give up their inflexible positions and sit down at the negotiating table immediately and work out a settlement that would help the ordinary people who are suffering. The world wants to see fair play and humane behaviour...
In other words, Palestinians are suffering, but mostly because they are "inflexible." Her rejection of the boycott is primarily a rejection of sympathy, in the context of espousing an understanding of Gaza in the terms framed and repeated ad nauseam in the mainstream propaganda organs of the Western imperial powers, as an allegedly intractable conflict between two sides, equally responsible. Furthermore, being personally implicated and addressed didn't lead her to reflection, or a serious attempt to listen, to learn, or to seek a deeper grasp of the conflict. She merely regurgitated talking points, of what is indeed propaganda: explicitly, she located her perspective, not in her own capacity to listen and to feel, but in the dumb identification with the objective perspective of "the world." What can "the world" know about Gaza? Isn't what "the world" knows exactly what the conscientious novelist shuns? For someone of her intelligence and background, what is at stake here is not principles but contempt, a preliminary dismissal of Palestinians as people who don't have a right to appeal to her solidarity, who don't have a right to take her precious time and attention, in short, beggars who dared to impose themselves on her.

But let's assume, pro forma again, that unlike propaganda,
Writing a novel often requires you to see life through the eyes of those you may not agree with. It is a polyphonic form. It pleads for the complex humanity of all human beings.
What then? Did anyone ask Atwood and Ghosh to write differently? The second pillar of their self-indulgent plea is to confuse writing with whatever writers do. Presumably, Atwood and Ghosh do not defecate like other mortals. Rather, they enter the little room to produce "polyphonic forms".

Writers write. Writing follows an ethics of writing, about which the two wax very poetic indeed. But writers do other things as well. They sleep, eat, defecate, scratch their ears, watch movies, vote, debate, join armies and die. Sometimes, they even accept literary prizes. Accepting a literary prize is not writing. It is a public act, participation in "the world", an exchange of recognition between an individual and an institution that is unavoidably political. Furthermore, like every political act, it must obey a "Yes or No" logic. One accepts or one doesn't.

To treat everything the writer does in her life as if it deserved the same deference as their writings is the sign of a narcissistic disorder. Atwood and Ghosh proceed therefore logically, from this disorder, to compare their decision to accept the prize to the courage of novelists "who have been shot, imprisoned, and exiled for their failure to toe somebody else’s line," shot, for example, like Ghassan Kanafani, exiled, for example, like Mahmoud Darwish. However, receiving half a million dollars does not take a lot of courage. Receiving it from the hands of Shimon Peres does take a very strong stomach. Accepting a prize is not "like" being "shot, imprisoned, and exile." Rather, the two are opposites. Writers receive prizes precisely because they do "toe somebody else’s line."

The writer's association PEN, Atwood and Ghosh claim, has a principled opposition to "cultural boycott."
We have to stick with our founding conviction that writers must reach out across nations. To stand anywhere else would be to betray our history and our mission.
Admirable. But in the self-serving formulation of our two heroes of defiance, one should never flush the toilet after it has been visited by a writer, lest one be accused of preventing the work of art from "reaching across nations." For Atwood and Ghosh, the power of art resides not only in the artistic creation itself, but in everything the artist does. Not only one should not pressure or punish a writer so that she writes in a certain way, not only should one allow the work of art to be experienced without restrictions, but all the writer's transactions, her finance, her business practices, all that are sanctified by the halo of art. Most importantly, because propaganda is never far from the work of art, because every work of art has political dimensions, to criticize the writer for her political associations, for her choice of a publisher for example, or for her participation in an event, is to oppress her and to suppress her art.

Needless to say, the street beggars and the homeless have no money to reward writers. Art is sponsored and celebrated by those who have the power and the money to do it, and for whom the artistic association is valuable, often precisely as propaganda. Atwood and Ghosh seem to claim the right to suck up to power, and to be handsomely rewarded for it. This is a however a right that they objectively have. Their whiny complaints notwithstanding, the boycott campaign only appealed to their conscience. The state of Israel can prevent Atwood and Ghosh from visiting Gaza (not that there is any evidence that they considered asking to go there). But the students of Gaza have no power, except the power of truth, to stop Atwood and Ghosh from going to Israel. What Ghosh and Atwood demand, therefore, is not the right to consort with power freely, a right they already have (unlike Palestinian writers, who, in contrast, are among those "jailed, exiled, censored, and murdered."), but the right not to be bothered, not to be subject to appeals to their conscience. They have less in common with those "who have been shot, imprisoned, and exiled for their failure to toe somebody else’s line," than with shoppers angry because they are blocked by a picket line.

They wouldn't have been so exercised if it weren't for their bad faith. Now we can finally fully explicate their argument:

  • As the opposite of propaganda, writing is incompatible with binary choices and must therefore be exempt from moral/political judgment.
  • Everything writers do qualify as writing.
Ergo: Everything writers do must be exempt from moral/political judgment.
Both premises are wrong or require serious qualifying; together they "prove" a self-indulgent idiocy.
We feel we must defend the diminishing open space in which dialogue, exchange, and relatively free expression are still possible.
Certainly, taking $500,000 from the hands of a war criminal--in an institutional space that boasts of its contribution to these crimes--does that. After all, what is Gaza if not an "open space in which dialogue, exchange, and relatively free expression are still possible?"

UPDATED: I also posted this on Atwood's blog. It is "awaiting moderation" in the hope that her belief in "dialog" extends beyond consorting with war criminals.

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