Friday, May 2, 2014

Alternate Reality

Philip Roth’s ‘The Counterlife’ is the best book I have read on the Jewish diaspora, the conflict in Israel and the identity of Jews; plus their lives in Judea, New Jersey and England. It is also about identity and Roth’s claim that living in a great country like the United States removes one’s ethnic heritage, coming into a wider more generic identity, adapting to a new world where old baggage is left behind. The book re-affirms Walt Whitman in his poetic epic ‘Leaves of Grass’, celebrating the diversity of New York, its bustling alleys with new immigrants unloaded from ships from the old world. I am starting to believe that Roth is possibly the best American writer around, aside from Cormac McCarthy; ‘The Counterlife’ is inventive and post-modern, if I can use that term, with ghosts as characters like in Macbeth, or characters from a book coming alive, counter scenarios thrive like alternate realities, all tackling the question of Jewish identity, with depictions of ultra-conservative settlers in Judea, or the West Bank as the media would describe it. More people should read Roth, aside from Thomas Friedman to understand the inner motivation of the diaspora.

In fact, Roth’s book is more a celebration of the American experiment, to leave the past and start new, the effort of re-invention. There are second acts in one’s life, contrary to F. Scott Fitzgerald. I watched the original movie last weekend starring Robert Redford, which I thought was inferior but in fact much better than Baz Luhrmann’s version, though Baz did a better job visually explaining the book. Jay Gatzby is an example of counter life, a new person created for love, though tragically lost, as forces of fate realign along a Greek tragedy. Roth’s book is a sly meditation, an elegant discussion of identity, both as an American and as a Jew, weaving stories that compare and contrast various points of view, attacking the militant ultra-orthodox people shaping Israel today, and perhaps preventing peace in the Middle East. Recently Secretary of State John Kerry used ‘apartheid’ to describe the situation, a view started by former President Jimmy Carter, perhaps a view that’s gaining mainstream acceptance and, unfortunately, may result in a return to anti-Semitism. All these strands come together: from the works of Roth, Fitzgerald, Whitman in trying to celebrate the best of the American experiment, of re-creating a new identity as a way forward, away from age old prejudice.

For the past several nights I watched the English mini-series ‘Edward VII’, an excellent but dated production about the eldest son of Queen Victoria, a series that won several awards with good performances. It was a good program with excellent insight on European royalty, especially politics and history, perhaps the start of a successful attempt to institutionalize a monarchy as others lost theirs during a turbulent period; for instance, the brutal killing of the Russian royal family by the Bolsheviks, the fall of Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany after the end of World War I. Linking the books I read, with scenes of Arthur Balfour, the Prime Minister who authored the Balfour Declaration, promised a Jewish homeland in answer to Zionism; the show depicted the forces that led to the world wars (i.e. rise of Germany), resulting in the Holocaust, the creation of Israel and troubles in the Middle East.  A young Winston Churchill was present, who played a prominent role as colonial secretary in carving out the fallen Ottoman Empire in the Hejaz.  Edward VII acted as peace maker and his death may have assured the occurrence of the world wars.

In both conflicts, America played a prominent part, rescuing the old powers from destroying themselves, watching the excellent HBO series ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’, understanding the rise of a new global state as the old world receded from stage. The rise of the new order, plus the experiment in a different humanity as written by Fitzgerald and Roth; that it’s possible to solve an intractable old conflict with a fresh ‘can do’ spirit but also results in illusion like Jay Gatzby (an officer in World War I) trying to re-claim a lost dream. It’s the new Turks that threaten the current order, plus the lack of wise men like Edward VII, who hold things together with his influence and prestige (like an English version of Secretary of State). One recalls a scene in Barbara Tuchman’s ‘The Guns of August’ where the royalty of Europe gathered for Edward VII’s funeral, walking the streets in their resplendent uniforms, as the funeral procession made their way; onlookers felt the end of an era, where a deadly evil was just around the corner. Disparate strands of thoughts come into synthesis; finding links and relationships, perhaps like Eastern philosophy where everything is connected; a holistic view of totality that make sense when scribbling thoughts in a page.  

No comments: