You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

Bopping in the Balkans, part 4

Lawrence Bush
October 12, 2017

LOOKING AT AMERICA FROM SIX HOURS LATER

by Lawrence Bush

To read earlier installments search "Bopping" in the search engine at right.

THE PATHETIC FALLACY is a term usually applied to literature that means the attribution of human feelings or intentions to inanimate things like the weather. It might be better known as "The Snoopy Fallacy," after Charlie Brown's still-famous dog, who is often portrayed writing moody fiction on the roof of his doghouse with the opening phrase, "It was a dark and stormy night . . ."

Anyway, it's hard not to get pathetic fallacious regarding America these days, with Puerto Rico devastated, Houston devastated, parts of Florida devastated, and my son in Santa Rosa, California now sleeping only a couple of miles from fire and ash. It seems that Mother Nature doesn't like Donald Trump's presidency or Republican rule one bit and is using the weather as her blunt instrument of disapproval. Pull out of the Paris Accords, will you? Come over here, I'm going to give you a good smack!

Meanwhile I'm still here in beautiful little Slovenia, being frequently reminded by the natives that Melania Trump hails from this land . . . which would be akin to my reminding every Italian I meet that Mussolini had a Jewish mistress . . .

Two nights ago I watched an exquisite dance performance by two women-as-one about Medusa the Gorgon, the monstrous female of Greek mythology who had snakes for hair and whose gaze turned men to stone. The dancers had exquisite control of their arm, leg, and back muscles, wore fabulously wild wigs, and came together and tore apart in spasms, in laughter, in sinuous seduction, while a singer, her face wrapped in silver cloth, admired herself in a shining mirror and made unearthly, echoing sounds. It took place in a black-box theater that was the perfect viewing size. And it got me to thinking and reading about Medusa and Greek mythology in general — we're in the country, after all, in which Jason and the Argonauts slew their dragon and founded the city of Ljubljana (a much more exciting and provocative story, if you ask me, than the Catholic torture-tale frescoes painted in all these little Slovenian chapels) . . .

Some old mythology sources portray Medusa as a monster born, but later sources describe her as a beautiful maiden who is either raped or seduced by the sea god, Poseidon, in a temple belonging to Athena. The enraged goddess punishes Medusa, of course (she can't really punish her uncle the sea god, but she's intent on punishing someone!), by turning her into a monster, and eventually wears Medusa's severed head on her breastplate. In a more appealing interpretation, Athena is actually punishing men, the rapist scoundrels, by turning the poor ruined maiden into a monster whose gaze will henceforth turn them into stone.

According to Robert Graves, the beheading of Medusa by the hero-warrior Perseus symbolizes an actual historical event from the 13th century BCE in which "the Hellenes overran the goddess's chief shrines" and "stripped her priestesses of their Gorgon masks . . . an actual historic rupture, a sort of sociological trauma." And according to Benjamin De Casseres, an American Jewish writer who died in 1945, the slaying of Medusa represents "the profoundest instinct in man . . . to war against the truth; that is, against the Real." Our lives, said De Casseres, are "a perpetual evasion."

Miracle, chimera and to-morrow keep [man] alive. He lives on fiction and myth. It is the Lie that makes him free. Animals alone are given the privilege of lifting the veil of Isis; men dare not. The animal, awake, has no fictional escape from the Real because he has no imagination. Man, awake, is compelled to seek a perpetual escape into Hope, Belief, Fable, Art, God, Socialism, Immortality, Alcohol, Love. From Medusa-Truth he makes an appeal to Maya-Lie.

I'm going to make America great again. But first, lock her up! said Donald Trump, clad in gold, with a cloak of invisibility and a sword of fake news with which to behead the Gorgon.

EVEN THE ARTSY-INTELLECTUAL Slovenians in the black-box theater seemed to me proud of their country — happily aware of its beauty (mountains and more mountains), of its Slavic culture and Western inclinations, of its social democracy, of its growing economy. Even the Museum of Puppetry in the high-atop-a-cliff castle in Ljubljana, was purple in its prose about Slovenian, as opposed to International, achievements in the art of puppetry.

By contrast, I observed to our friends and hosts Vesna and Gregor, in America, progressive people often have a hard time expressing love of country, as we're generally so upset by what our country is doing — so that patriotism, when you encounter it in America, is nearly always an indicator of rightwing politics. Vesna and Gregor responded with a list of their criticisms of Slovenia — the low wages paid, the high unemployment for educated people, the "don't stop here" attitude towards Syrian refugees headed to Germany (Slovenia eventually closed its borders with razor wire; one artist in downtown Ljubljana has marked the policy by draping an apartment building, roof to street, with razor-wire) — but there was none of the deep ambivalence that American leftists express about their country, as I've been doing ever since I've been here.

No surprise. America is even more "Balkanized" than the Balkans, and each region has its own deeply felt attachments (and dissenting minorities and majorities). Nevertheless, witnessing the widespread power of national pride and national symbols in little Slovenia has reinforced my own ambivalence about the current leftwing campaign to raise historical consciousness by tearing down statues and national symbols.

Today's Jewdayo, for example, talks about Christopher Columbus and converso members of his crew, who made landfall in the "New World" for the first time on October 12, 1492. Given Columbus's personal savagery towards native peoples in the Americas and the genocidal results of European settlement there, it is appropriate to use the observance of Columbus Day to expand the consciousness of Americans about Native American oppression and survival. But to obliterate the holiday, or to speak of it as purely a genocidal event, is to defame the history of the U.S. as a nation of immigrants. Yes, our country was founded in blood — what country was not, when the expansion of the human race since our departure from Africa has so, so often involved people in war, conquest, enslavement, and so on? Here in Slovenia, indeed, the history of conquest and domination is so complicated — involving the Roman Empire, the barbarian invasions, the Styrians, the Tyroleans, the Slavs, the Saxons, the Ottomans, the Austrians, the Yugoslavian communists, etcetera — as to make it impossibly boring to try to sort out. Yet America was also "the New World" for many, many people from all over the world, and Columbus Day is the imperfect embodiment of that reality.

I think that before we can rewrite history by altering the actual face of American culture, progressive forces in the U.S. should aim at becoming trusted, elected, and endorsed by a majority or a near-majority of the 99 percent, by virtue of our deeds, not our knowledge of misdeeds. As the civil rights veteran hero Andrew Young said at the time of the Charlottesville killing, “I’ve always been interested more in substance over symbols. . .”

Indeed, in a recent NPR-PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, even African Americans were opposed to removing Confederate statues by 44-40 percent. And most of them haven't been to Slovenia —where the statue of Tito still stands in Velenje, notwithstanding his purges, his dictatorship, his very mixed record.

FROM AFAR, here in Slovenia, my country the United States looks like a teenager who is cutting herself with razor blades in order to feel something. The dominant conservative "marketplace" ideology keeps America filled with anxiety and suffering — creativity and dynamism, too, but with sooooo much anxiety and suffering. Yes, you can maybe make a hundred gazillion dollars, but as one Yiddish expression puts it, "When there is too much of something, something in missing" -- and that applies even to creativity and dynamism and moolah. What's missing in "too much" America, and very present in "not quite enough" Slovenia, are free healthcare and education through college, city rents that you can afford, bikes that you can use for free, multilingual friendliness, freedom from homelessness and beggary, a widespread interest in arts in education, and the recognition that a little paternalistic government can go a long, long way.

Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.