zachary braiterman writes about and teaches modern jewish thought and culture in the department of religion at syracuse university.
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Crossing the George Washington Bridge on Columbus Day, I like this kind of patriotic spectacle combining the massive hard grey steel of the New Deal’ist architectural construct, and the gigantic red, white, and blue.
The staging of “The Death of Klinghoffer” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York opens one more chapter in the new Jewish culture wars. Throwing art and politics and the politics of representation into the mix, the opera scored by composer John Adams reflects upon the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists, and the murder of a Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer. It asks us to consider a cruel thing, an act of political murder against the large historical backdrop that is the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It tells that history in ways that still make many American Jews distinctly uncomfortable, particularly in relation to the account it makes of the Nakba, i.e. the Palestinian exodus or catastrophe.
Distilling the criticism, I would say that the primary problem some people have, beyond the political morality and the moral politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has to do with what the critics suspect is how the libretto, written by Alice Goodman, and the score to draw a moral equivalence between the humanity of an old man, a husband and father, and the humanity of the man and men who murdered him. I know plenty of American Jews who are having none of it, regardless of what they think about Israel and Israeli politics and policy. On top of that the opera is being staged at a time when a lot of American Jews feel that Israel has been unfairly singled out by critics, when open animus against Israel masks hatred and contempt for the Jewish people writ large. Their protests are marked by the anxious fear and sense of betrayal that this opera represents one more nail in the coffin of liberal public opinion and polite society. Much of the rightwing rage against the opera has clearly been manufactured, but I’ll admit that I am not unsympathetic to some of this protest. Certainly I would feel less ambivalent if it was my father who was shot in a wheelchair and thrown overboard. For a lot of people, it’s that simple. That’s why they won’t forgive the creators or producers of the opera, or the opera itself.
But from what I understand, the opera does not sugarcoat Palestinian rage or romanticize terrorism. Until I see the performance myself I will in the meantime trust Anthony Tommasini’s judgment, published last summer, which you can read here at the NYT. In particular, Tommasini comments about the way Leon Klinghofer is presented in the opera. “Klinghoffer … came across as a decent man bearing up under physical hardships who heroically denounced the hijackers and fired unflinching questions at Mamoud, their leader…, the most conflicted terrorist, though a man steeped in stony hatred.”
This is the same point made by Adams, quoted also in the NYT, which you can read here: “When Klinghoffer finally sings, he sings an aria of absolute indignation. He’s being taunted and abused by this bully that the passengers called ‘Rambo,’ and he fights back. I can’t imagine anybody not identifying with his words. He says: ‘Was it your pal who shot that little girl at the airport in Rome? You would have done the same.’ Or, ‘You pour gasoline over women passengers on the bus to Tel Aviv.’ How could that be construed as making fun of the Klinghoffers?”
And it’s the same point made by Alex Ross which you can read here in The New Yorker. Ross notes that Marilyn Klinghoiffer “notably has the last word of the libretto: If a hundred people were murdered/and their blood/flowed in the wake/Of this ship like Oil, only then/would the world intervene./They should have killed me./I wanted to die.” Ross then comments, “Anyone who thinks that “Klinghoffer” romanticizes murder probably has not sat through it to the end.”
Ross has more to say about the question of anti-Semitism relating to the characterization of Leon Klinghoffer in the play’s libretto. The opera “ventures onto extraordinarily difficult terrain, playing with stereotypes on both sides of the conflict, and no one should be surprised that it remains contentious. It has inspired a meaty debate in critical and scholarly circles, with the musicologist Richard Taruskin leading the prosecution and his colleague Robert Fink mounting a defense. Taruskin, in a 2001 article, charged that, in its original version, the opera catered to “anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti-bourgeois” prejudices—a sitcom-like scene involving a chattering Jewish-American family was later dropped—and that those prejudices remained visible even in the revised version. Fink, in 2005, responded that, in the end, the work celebrates precisely those middle-class values that Taruskin believes it rejects: the “life-affirming virtues of the ordinary, of the decent man, of small things.” That two intelligent commentators should reach such radically disparate conclusions points to an abiding problem at the heart of “Klinghoffer”: its pensive, ambivalent attitude toward present-day issues about which a great many people feel no ambivalence whatsoever.”
In his recent review of the actual performance, which you can read here in the NYT, Tomasini adds more, with a focus on Marilyn Klinghoffer: “Marilyn has just been told by the captain of the Italian cruise ship on which she had been enjoying a Mediterranean tour with her husband, Leon Klinghoffer, that Leon is dead. He has been shot by Palestinian hijackers, who tossed his body into the sea along with the wheelchair he used. As this horror sinks in, Marilyn erupts at the earnest captain, who had tried to reason with the Palestinians. “You embraced them!” she sings with stinging outrage, as the orchestra breaks into fitful leaps and shrieking chords. Slowly, though, memories come to her of nights at home when the children were out and just she and Leon sat together. “I wouldn’t glance up/From the book on my lap/For hours at a time,” she sings, while the music’s sputtering vocal lines, jagged rhythms and piercing cluster chords gradually settle into a mood of quieter despair. “I knew his face so well / His beautiful smile.”
It could be that part of what’s at stake in the protest concerns the aestheticization of violence, but I’m not sure. The trickier question relates how the libretto and score might add human dimension to an act of political murder. But even here, it’s hard to see how the overarching story of historical loss and historical memory sung by the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians is coupled in the libretto with the language of rage and violence that consumes so much of the Palestinian voice in the opera. From what I’ve read, the Palestinian voice is reduced to sounds marked exclusively by either elegiac loss or harsh dissonance, a limited human range indeed. Representing liberal society, the Captain of the ship tries to reason with the leader of the terrorist squad and the killer of Klinghoffer. As per Tomassini, “The Captain replies that if Mamoud could talk like this among his enemies, peace would come. In response, Mr. Allicock’s Mamoud, looking stone-faced, brought chilling calm to the passage that underlines the tragedy of this opera: The day he and his enemies sit peacefully, Mamoud explains, each “putting his case” and working toward peace, is the “day our hope dies,” the day that “I shall die, too.”
The best critical response and pushback here at the Guardian, where 4 New Yorkers were taken to opening night and asked to write out their impressions. Regarding the interruptions during the performance, they make it clear that the booing and applauding, as well as the circus demonstration outside the opera house did not interfere with the performance as much as they added to it, the response in real-time becoming part of the art. Eli Valley, comments: “Sure enough, a guy in a fancy section started shouting “The murder of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven!” He chanted this over and over, and in such a rhythmic intonation that I thought it was part of the opera, but apparently he was trying to snap us out of the Taliban training tutorial he’d come to sabotage.” As for the protests outside, these two were part of the show. “Watching the kids with signs, I wondered which of these productions — inside the Met or on the street outside — was the real operatic stew of indoctrination and incitement, an intricately choreographed production of paralysis in Palestine. As if to reinforce the point, a cheerful woman was passing out a mock-up of the Met’s playbill, photoshopped with an image from an Isis beheading video.”
This then is art, this then is opera as live, public spectacle. I’m not sure, but it seems as if the opera did more to respect the memory of Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer, did more to humanize the Jewish and Palestinian experience, and did more to dramatize better the brute reality of the Achille Lauro attack and the murder of Klinghoffer than did the protesters inside and outside the Met, despite their own contribution to that very spectacle.
Originally posted on affecognitive:
Last week, Judith Butler gave the 2014 Edward Said Memorial Lecture at the Palestine Center of The Jerusalem Fund. It was titled “What is the value of Palestinian lives,” and it was streamed live so that you, too, can listen to it while making dinner for your family.
Butler’s topic of grievability is not new; in fact, it has become her regular schtick in recent years, so much so, that listening to her lectures or reading her book Parting Ways is akin to a kind of academic political brand(ing). Brands are effective and comfortable in part because they short-circuit thought and plug immediately into familiar affective landscapes (reliability, for example, or hipness, or the panache of a certain class). While academic celebrities cannot avoid the “sticky affect” (Sara Ahmed) of this kind of branding, or (worse) the reactionary discursive tyrannies that sometimes devolve from it (i.e., if you want to…
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Jeff Koons has come and gone. I did not expect to like as much as I did the big retrospective devoted to him at the Whitney. You may have seen the images –the puppies and kittens, Pop Eye, the oversize Balloon Dog and blow up toys, erotic photographs with his then wife, the Italian porn star Ilona Staller (“La Cicciolina”), the sculpture of Michael Jackson with Bubbles, the vacuum cleaners placed in clear glass vitrines. In the Pop Art tradition of Andy Warhol, their presentation is in naughty bad taste and lots of good fun. My own initial indifference may have something to do with the physically grotesque scale and the emblematic ubiquity of the works coupled with the intense critical moralizing that his work attracts from critics who cannot detach the actual objects from the means of production-consumption specific to post-industrial capitalism and the commodification of art represented by Koons. With Adorno, large segments of the culture industry look with a jaundiced eye at fun art. While I don’t share the intensity that comes with this kind of critique, it’s hard to shake its cumulative effect. But perhaps there was another set of reasons as to why I was less excited than merely curious or simply interested about the show might have to with my not particularly liking the objects as such; and relatedly, with my sense that I don’t think the works photograph well, at least not from the distance required to capture their entire shape.
Looking up close at the large Play-Doh (1994-2014), though, I think I figured it out. The sculpture looks soft, like a gigantic pile of “real” play doh, it’s metallic, as are many of the sculptural objects intended to look like vinyl blow up things. The warning posted by the museum at the exhibition are very much to the point. “Please do not touch the works on view. The surfaces of these objects are fragile. Looked at from a distance, the shape of the objects are cute and campy, and from that perspective, you might like or dislike them as such. But looked up close, what draws the eye is not the shape and the beauty of the object as much as that fragile surface, worked down to the last millimeter. You can read about the workmanship devoted to these object here and here, about industrial techniques like machine-milling and imaging technologies, the army of assistants, consultants, and technicians including, most recently, M.I.T.’s Center for Bits and Atoms. That and nothing less is what it takes to create and sustain this attention to detail, to create such a perfect surface or to recreate surface imperfections.
In the Garden of Eden, it’s not the shape that “matters.” It’s the surface, in this case the transformation of a metallic surface into something that looks soft, yielding, inviting. Worked to death, that’s the reason these things are so expensive. There is a moral commitment here…to the object. The materials are precious, the craftsmanship is layered, and the work takes time, lots of time, to get every square inch of the surface just right. Look closely, but don’t touch. These things look cheap. They are supposed to invoke cheap material things when what they exhibit is thought, craft, and work. We could probably say the same thing about late consumer capitalism. In Our Aesthetic Categories, Sionne Ngai identifies the cute, the interesting, and the zany as our aesthetic categories. Oddly enough, she does so without mention of Koons, whose work is the consummate articulation of those very categories and the social forces that generate them. A cute artwork is something you just want to gobble up. But you can’t. Look closely at the surface, but please don’t touch the art. And for God’s sake, don’t eat the artworks. They are made of metal. If you eat them, you’ll die.
One tends to think that, according to the Bible, light was the first thing God created. Not according to Nachmanides. Readers of Scripture are familiar with the passage. The earth was unformed (tohu) and void (bohu). Usually these are considered as a composite or single state, tohu va’bohu. According to Nachmanides, these are two separate things, the first created “things.” Identified with Greek hyly and most recondite, this first created stuff is “a very thin substance devoid of corporeality but having a power of potency, fit to assume form and to proceed from potentiality into reality.” William Blake got it right. An “astonishing thing,” Nachmanides compares it to “the line by which a craftsperson delineates the plan of [a] structure.” For its part, bohu stands for “a thing which has substance,” by which I think Nachmanides means crude corporeal substance. First the world was tohu and then it became bohu (comments on Gen. 1:1,3) The verb “create” is reserved exclusively for tohu, according to Nachmanides. (In fact the Bible uses the same term to refer to the human creature.) Everything else gets “made,” which for Nachmanides “always means adjusting something to its required proportion” (comment on Gen. 1:7).
God declares the work good (tov), the shapes that God makes and shapes out of tohu va’bohu, but this cannot be a moral evaluation. The idea of moral good is introduced only later, in relation to evil, by means of another figure or shape, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That’s in the second chapter of Genesis, where the frame of reference is a human one. For now the word “good” stands on its own. At the very end of creation in the first chapter of Genesis, God calls the world “very good.” In a very famous comment in the midrashic commentary, the rabbis take this apparently superfluous term to include the yetzer ha’ra (the evil inclination) and death. Nachmanides picks up this idea. He interprets the word “me’od” to mean mostly, i.e. the world is mostly good, quoting Onkelos to mean “very orderly” and “properly arranged.” Nachmanides, no less than 5x in his commentary in the parshat Bereishit, understands the word “good” to mean “continued existence” or “permanence.” For God to call creation “good” is to say that the world is something God wants. The judgment is onto-aesthetic (comments on Gen. 1:31, and also 1:4,10,12 and 2:18).