Mari Cohen (assistant editor): I’ve previously alluded in this newsletter to my longtime fascination with the specter of “alien contact” as an opportunity to examine the social structures of our society through the lens of a completely unfamiliar visitor. Yet for someone interested in the liberatory possibilities of imagined worlds, my adult sci-fi reading resumé is embarrassingly thin. I’m confronting just what I’d been missing out on after picking up The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin thanks to the enthusiastic recommendation of my colleagues Nora and Aparna. I believe this book has changed my life.
In The Dispossessed, protagonist Shevek grows up on Anarres—a moon of the planet Urras—settled 200 years previously by a group of utopian anarchists. The Anarresti have succeeded in constructing their property-less, government-less, mutual-aid-based society on their inhospitable, dry moon; Shevek’s generation has never known anything different. On Urras, meanwhile, a society more familiar to us lives on: Two empires, one capitalist and one authoritarian communist, fight for geopolitical control of the planet, and great wealth inequality and violence rage on. Citizens of the two planets have little to no contact with one another until Shevek, a once-in-a-generation physics genius, makes the dramatic choice to visit Urras after his own society becomes unfriendly to his research.
By juxtaposing the two planets, LeGuin has ample opportunity to train her anthropologist’s eye on each, resulting in richly detailed landscapes and fascinating passages of imagined social history. The exposition never feels gratuitous or didactic—its scaffolding is built in service to Shevek’s story. In adopting the Anarresti perspective, LeGuin effectively defamiliarizes the capitalist and carceral reality of Urras: In a class on the history of Urras, Anarresti children are genuinely baffled to learn what a “prison” is. The characters often call each other “propertarian” as an insult.
The Dispossessed maintains a stubborn commitment to complexity. Annaresti society is an astonishing feat, but it is not an easy paradise. Food, labor, and governance are equitably shared, and the powerful social value placed on communal responsibility keeps violence rare without the need for prisons or police. Yet human beings remain human beings, and can’t entirely dispel their dreaded “egoism”: Shevek’s jealous and controlling physics mentor takes credit for his labor and thwarts his more esoteric investigations. The powerful hive-mind, too, can be employed in less generous ways: A musician friend of Shevek finds his experimental compositions shunned because the group councils in charge of composition are suspicious of anything new.
The defects of Annares are symbolically underscored by the comparison of its harsh landscape to the lush natural features of Urras. On his visit to Urras, Shevek takes genuine delight in observing and experiencing its scenery: “The tenderness and vitality of the colors, the mixture of rectilinear human design and powerful, proliferate natural contours, the variety and harmony of the elements, gave an impression of complex wholeness such as he had never seen.” Yet LeGuin does not depict Anarres’s flaws in order to deem it a dystopia or denigrate it as a fool’s project. Shevek may be an Annaresti iconoclast, but he remains Annaresti at heart, suspicious of the “propertarianism” everywhere on Urras. For all of his planet’s flaws, he would not trade its spirit of solidarity for the unequal spoils of Urras. As he tells an audience of wealthy Urrasti partygoers, “Our men and women are free—possessing nothing, they are free. And you the possessors are possessed. You are all in jail. Each alone, solitary, with a heap of what he owns.”
I have a tendency towards cynicism, which is helpful when it’s time to be clear-eyed about what I see around me, and less helpful when it’s time to imagine an otherwise. I want to be a good radical, but it’s hard to shake my skepticism, to believe in what else might be possible, especially amidst a modern left racked by division and factionalism. LeGuin’s speculative fiction has opened a portal in my mind. Watching an elsewhere in action on Anarres, I am moved to truly visualize how else we might labor, how else we might love, how else we might live. I don’t know how to get there. But I know I’ll be thinking about The Dispossessed for many days to come.
Ari Brostoff (senior editor): For me, the special pleasure of putting together this summer’s issue of Jewish Currents was that, though it did not technically have a theme, we had reason to dub it our secret psychoanalysis issue. Four different pieces—on grief and grievance in American Jewish politics, therapy’s repressed religious origins, psychoanalysis in Israel/Palestine, and the HBO series Couples Therapy—were centrally concerned with psychoanalytic questions; to celebrate the issue’s release, we held an event about decolonization and the clinic.
I never quite know how to describe my own relationship to psychoanalysis: I’ve never studied it seriously or undergone a full treatment, but my enthusiasm and curiosity about the practice is a bit more than, shall we say, secular. So I’ve been delighted this week that a new magazine about psychoanalysis, Parapraxis, has launched online, with the first print issue coming out in December (I have the honor of being on the masthead as a contributing editor). Maybe the reason I was so excited about JC’s secret psychoanalysis issue is that it wasn’t always obvious to me that a magazine could be a regular forum for psychoanalytic thought. But my brilliant friend Alex Colston—one of the founding editors of Parapraxis together with Hannah Zeavin, a deeply witty and thoughtful participant in our decolonization and the clinic event—knew better.
As the excellent introductory essay to their first issue reminds us, Freud understood psychoanalysis as being in many ways a study of error because our mistakes, gaffes, and blunders, which he called “parapraxes,” offer insight into the workings of the unconscious, which has a mind of its own. At the same time, as the editors write, attention to the buried workings of the psyche provides psychoanalysis with its great social project: “the recuperation of history through its traumas and limits toward a curative and, we hope, emancipatory end.” If journalism, as the saying goes, is a first draft of history, then it stands to reason that Freud’s method should find itself at home in the form of a magazine, with its inevitably blundering attempts at understanding the world in real time.
It has been a treat reading the handful of pieces now up online, which include an inquiry by Nathan Rochelle Duford into a neofascist male pundit’s mysterious claim that having sex with women would make him gay; a piece by McKenzie Wark challenging psychoanalysts to reckon with their field’s failures with regard to the treatment of trans patients; and an essay by JC contributing writer Zoé Samudzi on the South African Jewish photographer David Goldblatt’s images of rural Afrikaner families near the end of the apartheid regime, which dramatically illustrate everyday attempts to shore up a crumbling form of racialized kinship. The first print issue, with the theme “The Family Problem,” looks very exciting, and I’m eagerly awaiting its arrival in my mailbox next month.
Helen Betya Rubinstein (contributing writer): Each time I’ve landed on the Bookshop.org website this week, I’ve been faced with an ad for a suite of books by Art Spiegelman. This turns out not to be a personalized recommendation based on the embarrassing number of times I’ve read Maus, but an ad in connection with the lifetime achievement medal Spiegelman will receive at the National Book Awards Ceremony on November 16.
Missing from the banner, however, and from Bookshop.org altogether, is the book I consider the best Holocaust book out there, or anyway my favorite: Spiegelman’s MetaMaus, created in conversation with comics scholar Hillary Chute, and featuring sketches, early drafts, and tons of insight into the composition process. I reread it a few months ago, marveling at how, from the time he began drafting Maus—when the available research on the Nazi genocide easily fit on a few bookshelves—Spiegelman nevertheless managed to anticipate and pointedly avoid the genre and aesthetic he calls “Holokitsch.”
MetaMaus acquaints its reader with an artist whose brilliance and foresight risks being obscured by his commercial success. (In the words of Spiegelman’s wife, the editor Françoise Mouly: “Next to making Maus, your greatest achievement may have been not turning Maus into a movie.”) Spiegelman comments on his desire to disown the term “Holocaust,” which he finds overly religious and martyrizing; his lifelong project “to make as many graven images as I could”; and the book’s tepid reception in Israel (he wonders if this is because it’s too resolutely diasporist). The book also includes a collection of typewritten 1983 rejection letters from publishers, which are, in retrospect, deliciously vindictive to peruse. (Editors “just didn’t find the story here to be sufficiently compelling,” complaining it “never quite gets on track.”) You also get a few nuggets from Spiegelman’s therapist, the survivor Paul Pavel, who tells us that “neurosis is just a solution that has become a problem” and wonders if, beyond a Christian obsession with sacrifice and martyrdom, part of the reason survivors were heroicized had to do with life always “taking the side of life.”
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): In yesterday’s newsletter, I wrote about Tantura and H2: The Occupation Lab, two of the movies screening at this year’s Other Israel Film Festival—a far more interesting and daring event than most Jewish film festivals. But there are a number of other documentaries on view that I heartily recommend to readers of Jewish Currents.
Assaf Banitt and Shay Hazkani’s The Soldier’s Opinion is an account of the group within the IDF whose job it was to read all outgoing letters, providing the army’s leadership with a view of the soldiers’ state of mind. When soldiers spoke frankly about things like drug use, they were reported. But Big Brother was not always evil: On rare occasions, the patterns found in letters from a particular unit led to positive institutional changes. The censors interviewed in the film speak about how they came to know the soldiers whose letters they read—their hopes, fears, and failings.
Julia Bacha’s Boycott, an important film for American viewers, tells us about the coordinated effort by an unholy alliance of right-wing Jews and evangelical political figures to ban BDS activity, forcing companies to pledge not to participate in a boycott of Israel. It should seem obvious to those with even the most casual knowledge of the First Amendment that this is unconstitutional (as some courts have found, though not all). Still, it’s hardly shocking that state legislators are lazy and ignorant enough to pass such laws: Some of those interviewed by the director acknowledge not having read the bills at all. The film does a brilliant job of showing the not-so-hidden antisemitism of the fundamentalist proponents of these laws and their belief that Jews are all going to hell—after they redeem the Holy Land to prepare the way for the Rapture. (Almost comically, the rabbi of Little Rock’s largest congregation speaks of his opposition to such laws, while the legislator who proposed the Arkansas bill admits he never spoke to any Jews.) The people who stood up against these laws in Arkansas, Texas, and California by refusing to sign the required pledge displayed impressive courage, risking their livelihoods in the name of what’s right.
The Forgotten Ones, directed by Michale Boganim, is a moving and justifiably angry film on the mistreatment of Israel’s Mizrahi Jews. Boganim—the daughter of one of the key figures of the Israeli Black Panthers, who Prime Minister Golda Meir famously said were “not nice” for raising hell in fighting discrimination and insisting on their rights—shows the myriad ways Mitzrahim have been sidelined and victimized by the country’s Ashkenazi leadership. But sadly, as Boganim admits, many Mizrahim came to vote for the right, turning their backs on the positive role (perhaps always illusory) they might have played as intermediaries between the Palestinians and the Jews.
The film I most strongly recommend is Moshe Alafi’s The Samaritans: A Biblical People, a frank and fascinating portrait of the tiny religious group living in two West Bank cities. Its 850 members still follow the rules of this ancient offshoot of Judaism to the letter, and this wonderful film explores their practices, customs, mores—and, most importantly, the threat to their continued existence posed by declining birthrates.