To life!

L’Chaim!

– a traditional Jewish toast.

Jews appreciate every moment of life. It doesn’t matter if things are going the way you want them, stop and pause, and raise your glass to the delicious opportunity life is giving you right now. You’ll never get that moment back again.

– Rabbi Jack Kalla

Shut out the light

Sometimes I find myself singing a short refrain from Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Falsely accused and languishing in prison, Joseph sings,

If my life were important I
Would ask will I live or die
But I know the answers
Lie far from this world

There’s a dramatic irony in these words, for we know that Joseph has been chosen by God to become prime minister of Egypt and save the Egyptians from an impending famine. But of course, Joseph can’t see the broader context of his imprisonment. Andrew Lloyd Webber has the stage-Joseph utter words which reflect a very modern, existential uncertainty: is one’s life important? Is there a meaning in our suffering and adversity? Does God see us?

The words I sang as a 10 year old in England have a very different meaning for me now: they have expanded, deepened, morphed, they have accreted countless additional layers of meaning, accumulated stories. Their context is no longer the confines of a 70’s stage show but seem rather a prayer for a world without an answer to its alienation and pain.

Having written these few reflections, I found myself reading in The New Nation about Sandra Bland, the african-american who died in a Texas police cell in 2015, allegedly by suicide.

http://bit.ly/1qIHuNT

 Her story is a tragic one of dashed hopes and relentless adversity – some perhaps of her own making but much as a result of institutionalised racism and a society callously indifferent to suffering. Her life could be seen as a microcosm of the deeply entrenched prejudices and violence to which black Americans are still subject. 

… if my life

At this point my thoughts begin to splinter into multiple, disparate shards. I think of other prisoners – prisoners of conscience, known and unknown, the innocent, the guilty, political prisoners or common criminals; remembered, loved, hated, forgotten. The victims of political and religious repression; prisoners of war. The millions who went through the gulags of the Soviet Union. The accused who faced the Inquisition. The women and children of the Boer War camps. Chile’s “disappeared ones”. The thousands of tortured and murdered “desaparecidos” – victims of the Argentine military during “The Dirty War” of 1974-1983. Biko’s death in police custody. Socrates death in prison. John the Baptist. Jesus.

I think of Oscar Wilde’s cruel imprisonment, and his deeply moving “Ballad of Reading Gaol”.

A shard of memory:
When I was 15 and struggling to come to terms with what was happening in my newly adopted country, I kept under my bed a copy of The Star newspaper that had published in long dense columns of print the names of literally hundreds of people detained under apartheid’s draconian security laws…

A shard of memory:
At age 13 hearing the groaning, pleading and screams of a prisoner at a police station in Pietermaritzburg.

A shard of memory:
As a boy visiting the “chamber of horrors” in London’s Madame Tussauds, and seeing in effigy the crouching figure of an old man who’d been confined to a tiny cage his entire life for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread.

A shard of memory:
At age 21, attending a vigil outside the Soviet embassy in London to protest the incarceration in a mental asylum of a Russian orthodox priest for his “anti-Soviet views”.

… will I live or die

Notorious prisons: For every one named, a thousand others exist. Chikurubi. Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo. Devil’s Island. Al Catraz. Penetanguishene. Robben Island … but I must stop: it is not the places of incarceration and torture which occupy my thoughts but the human stories they represent. Stories told, and left untold. It is the invisible ones that trouble me the most. Who were they?

The terrible silence: the absence of their stories.

the answers lie far from this world


Close every door to me
Hide all the world from me
Bar all the windows
and shut out the light
Do what you want with me
Hate me and laugh at me
darken my daytime
and torture my night
If my life were important I
Would ask will I live or die
But I know the answers
Lie far from this world

Close every door to me
Keep those I love from me
Children of Israel are never alone
For I know I shall find
my own peace of mind
for I have been promised
A land of my own

(Choir)
Close every door to me
Hide All the world from me
Bar all the windows
and shut out the light

(Joseph)
Just give me a number
Instead of my name
forget all about me
and let me decay

I do not matter
I’m only one person
Destroy me completely
Then throw me away
If my life were important I
Would ask will I live or die
But I know the answers
Lie far from this world

Close every door to me
Keep those I love from me
Children of Israel
Are never alone
For we know we shall find
Our own piece of mind
For we have been promised
A land of our own


http://bit.ly/1YQrCUG 

bit.ly/1SNUy1vbit.ly/1SNUy1v

The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde: 

http://bit.ly/1ryhfLb

The Abject

THE POWERS OF HORROR

https://www.cla.purdue.edu/english/theory/psychoanalysis/kristevaabject.html

“According to Julia Kristeva in the Powers of Horror, the abject refers to the human reaction (horror, vomit) to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other. The primary example for what causes such a reaction is the corpse (which traumatically reminds us of our own materiality); however, other items can elicit the same reaction: the open wound, shit, sewage, even the skin that forms on the surface of warm milk … the abject… “draws me toward the place where meaning collapses”…. The abject thus at once represents the threat that meaning is breaking down and constitutes our reaction to such a breakdown …  The abject has to do with “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules” and, so, can also include crimes like Auschwitz. Such crimes are abject precisely because they draw attention to the “fragility of the law”.

More specifically, Kristeva associates the abject with the eruption of the Real into our lives. In particular, she associates such a response with our rejection of death’s insistent materiality. Our reaction to such abject material re-charges what is essentially a pre-lingual response. Kristeva therefore is quite careful to differentiate knowledge of death or the meaning of death (both of which can exist within the symbolic order) from the traumatic experience of being actually confronted with the sort of materiality that traumatically shows you your own death:

“A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does notsignify death. In the presence of signified death—a flat encephalograph, for instance—I would understand, react, or accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpsesshow me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being.”

The corpse especially exemplifies Kristeva’s concept since it literalizes the breakdown of the distinction between subject and object that is crucial for the establishment of identity and for our entrance into the symbolic order. What we are confronted with when we experience the trauma of seeing a human corpse (particularly the corpse of a friend or family member) is our own eventual death made palpably real. As Kristeva puts it, “The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life.” (Powers 4).