Monday, March 09, 2009

Beware of writers’ politics

Haruki Murakami may be a great novelist, but he is also a political buffoon. Most writers are. As the German novelist Daniel Kehlman said at the University of Göttingen not quite three years ago,

My god, Hölderlin and Kleist embraced patriotism and the German Nation, Kipling the English Empire; Claudel and Yeats were half-fascists; Pound and Benn whole ones; Céline and Jünger I don't even want to talk about, and Aragon, Eluard, Brecht, Heinrich Mann and Feuchtwanger and many dozens of Europe’s premier intellectuals wrote letter or reverential submission to and hymns about Josef Stalin. Writers have two main traits: they dislike pragmatics and they are often opportunists.Murakami is the latter variety. Invited to Israel to accept the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society, he seizes the opportunity to stand with those who seek to destroy the Jewish State. Inscribed on the wall of his mind, he sighs, is the slogan: “Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.” He goes on, as if addressing schoolchildren:Yes, no matter how right the wall may be, how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will do it. But if there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?I dunno. Maybe the value of truth? What value the works of a novelist who candidly prefers to be morally muddled? Murakami presses on:What is the meaning of this metaphor, of the wall and the egg? In some cases, it is all too simple and clear. Bombers and tanks and rockets and white phosphorus shells are that high wall. The eggs are unarmed civilians who are crushed, burned and shot by them. This is one meaning of this metaphor that is true.Now, Murakami began his school lesson by warning that he had come to Jerusalem as a “professional spinner of lies,” but even an admitted liar might think twice about uncritically passing on discredited Hamas propaganda about the Israeli use of “white phosphorous shells.” Even more telling is the refusal to make moral distinctions. Only the “unarmed civilians” of one side—the side of the infinitely fragile egg—earn the novelist’s tender mercies. True, terrorists launch rockets at unarmed civilians on the other side of “the wall,” and then courageously hide themselves among their own unarmed countrymen. Despite their rockets and their ambitions to murder as many Jews as possible, however, they are mere eggs. We must mourn the breaking of such precious eggs as Nizar Rayan and Abu Zakaria al-Jemal and Said Siam. It is equally imperative not to show any concern for residents of the wall, even if their schools are hit by the eggs’ rockets. They are only eggs, after all, and unarmed Israeli children—well, they belong to the wall.

The officials of the Jerusalem International Book Fair, who awarded their prize to Murakami, ought to have rushed the stage, wrestled the trophy out of his hands, and presented it to the nearest anonymous bystander, who could not possibly have been a bigger moral idiot than the Japanese novelist.


R. T. Davis said...

If I start with your assertion that most writers are political buffoons, I would suggest that the word "buffoon" is often insufficient in its implied attribution of simple minded innocence. The implications of Murakami's tortured metaphor go beyond simple minded innocence and cross the line (beyond even irresponsibility) into a more pernicious realm.

Approaching your topic from a different angle, when I ask students to confront the provocative dimensions of literature, I often instigate discussions by reminding them that a large portion of good literature is political and subversive. They are then on notice to diagnose, contextualize, and confront those aspects in their reading.

Now, notwithstanding whatever merits or deficiencies there might be in his novels, we can add Murakami's name to those whose political attitude seeks to subvert. And the target of his subversion is Israel's existence.

Why is it, I wonder, that so many seemingly right-minded people (no pun intended) are so anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian. (Note that I dread President Obama's inevitable actions on the topic.)

I join with you in thinking that someone should have recognized the unpleasant irony that had just occurred and should have rescinded Murakami's prize for freedom.

D. G. Myers said...

Professor Davis,

You ask, “Why is it, I wonder, that so many seemingly right-minded people (no pun intended) are so anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian.” This is the deepest stupidity of what you call “Murakami’s tortured metaphor.” It takes no courage at all, and less intelligence, to stand with the eggs when the entire world is standing with them as they pelt the Jews.

Buce said...

I think it is a bit too simple to say that Kipling embraced the British Empire. The Empire liked to believe that he embraced the Empire but you read him at length and you get a more textured presentation than perhaps the Empire would have liked. Perhaps his most evident soft spot is for the grunts who got caught up in the work of Empire and shouldn't be held responsible for the mad idea itself. I think I'd rank him with Adam Smith, Nietzsche and others who are so often caricatured --betrayed--by their enthusiasts. Cf.:

BTW misspell your name by one letter at Google and you come up with a talking sheet metal contractor.