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Apr
1
2022

Every Friday, Jewish Currents staff, board members, and other supporters send out a selection of books and articles from other publications we’ve been reading (and maybe the occasional movie or TV show or album). We spend a lot of time developing and promoting our own work, but we want to offer you a look at what else is on our minds.

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Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): In December 2020, Haim Eshed, the former head of the Israeli Ministry of Defense's space programs, made headlines by declaring that humans had in fact made contact with extraterrestrials. Among other eyebrow-raising claims, he insisted that the aliens and the Americans had formed an “intergalactic federation” and that representatives from both species were operating an underground base on Mars. You may remember that I poked fun at Eshed in this newsletter at the time—the rare alien story in mainstream news too out there even for me. I never read Eshed’s last book, The Universe Beyond the Horizon, as it was never translated into English. Luckily, members of the UFO network MUFON have cobbled together a crowdsourced translation of his latest tell-all memoir Operation Supernova, which details the near-breakdown of the Intergalactic Federation after Donald Trump’s departure from the White House under what Eshed describes as Joe Biden’s “weak leadership,” and the aliens’ subsequent turn to the Israelis as superior human partners. Reader, I have to admit, it’s pretty convincing stuff.

Eshed’s aliens more or less conform to the canon description of the grays: short, humanoid, big eyes, gray skin. They communicate telepathically in the language spoken by their interlocutors. But in Eshed’s telling, by necessity, they have also learned to communicate from a distance—not via satellite, as in the past, but via text message, straight to the iPhone in the Oval Office. It was due to some well-placed Pegasus Spyware—Eshed stops short of saying that the Israelis bugged the US president, but that is indeed the implication—that the Bennett administration first learned there was trouble in paradise: The aliens, tired of sneaking around and keen for easier exchange with Earthlings, have long wanted to reveal themselves, and saw in Trump a leader with a talent for controlling the message who could pave the way for a grand revelation without inducing mass hysteria. But Trump misjudged in planning for an other-worldly second act to the Abraham Accords at the start of an all-but-assured second term. Now the aliens were stuck with Biden, in whose powers of persuasion they had “zero confidence,” as the characteristically blunt alien negotiators put it directly to the leader of the free world himself, via text. They cite Sens. Manchin and Sinema, but also viral tweets, substack posts, and hot takes from niche publications in the American mediasphere (bizarrely, the aliens quote from both Jacobin and Commentary with some regularity) about everything from the hasty pullout from Afghanistan to Jen Psaki’s rapid Covid test gaffe.

Enter the Israelis, who intercept the transmissions and make direct contact, bonding immediately with the ETs over their no-nonsense style and realpolitik worldview. Eshed recounts how lead Israeli negotiator Idan Roll, the gay former model and father of two from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, gains the aliens’ trust by introducing them to the Israeli hasbara operation, a well-oiled machine adept at “explanation” on a global scale. If anyone can competently carry the message of extraterrestrial life, it’s them. (In this regard, the book also unexpectedly doubles as a deep dive into hasbara networks, from top secret meetings with AIPAC executives to virtual tours of gamified troll farms and Instagram influencers.) According to Eshed, the Israelis have now replaced the Americans in the Martian underground base. But if all this is true, where’s the big announcement? Eshed says any day now...

Nathan Goldman (managing editor): For decades, the mysterious German Jewish philosopher Hans Perel was known to us only from passing references in the writings of his more famous friends and acquaintances. Many of these allusions concern not the work but the man himself—and portray him as a bit of a nuisance. In a letter to Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin complains that Perel ditched him at an expensive lunch, leaving him to foot the bill. A diary entry by Martin Buber describes a release party for an issue of Buber’s storied magazine Der Jude at which Perel overindulged and defaced the walls with pornographic graffiti. But if the accounts of Perel’s behavior are less than flattering, every mention of his gnomic writings—all of which have long been thought lost—is ecstatic. Theodor Adorno once wrote to Max Horkheimer that Perel “did in each lightning phrase what would take most of us a lifetime of labor.” Ernst Bloch called him “not the last true metaphysician, but the very last.” For Hannah Arendt, his thought “promised to renew the possibility of religion, of politics, of human being.”

Finally, we can experience Perel’s work for ourselves. His magnum opus, The Ruin of What Is, has just appeared in English from NYRB Classics, in a luminescent translation by Damion Searls. Those preoccupied with the chaos of the last few years might have missed the big news of the text’s discovery in late 2020, when it was found in a wrecked submarine off the coast of Denmark. (Though we know Perel died fleeing the Nazis, the exact circumstances remain obscure, so it’s unclear whether the copy belonged to him or was being ferried out of Europe by some associate.) Miraculously legible despite water damage and decay, the manuscript was promptly published in Germany to considerable acclaim; I’ve been eagerly awaiting its arrival in English ever since.

So how is it? Baffling and brilliant. Shifting seamlessly between aphorism, discursus, and fable, Perel interweaves a quasi-mystical exegesis of “ehyeh asher ehyeh”—the Hebrew phrase God gives when Moses asks for God’s name in the Book of Exodus, variously translated as “I am that I am” and “I will be what I will be,” among other variations—with a meticulous and biting rebuttal of G.W.F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, developing what scholar Susan Buck-Morss, in her astoundingly lucid introduction, calls “a multipolar dialectics of the unknowable.” If that sounds forbidding, rest assured that the reading experience is less dry treatise than psychedelic amusement park ride—if the roller coaster was careening along the edge of history’s abyss. Somehow anticipating structuralism, poststructuralism, the linguistic turn, affect theory, posthumanism, and social media, Perel carries us up to the limits of our ways of knowing. As he writes in the prolegomena to the preface to the first introduction, “While as dark is to dawn so is Not to the Each, our carrying is at last unbecome, and All shall it be.” I certainly hope he’s right.

Mari Cohen (assistant editor): Move over, Moncrieff! There’s a new Proust translator in town. Singer-songwriter Taylor Alison Swift may be known in recent years for her surprise album drops, but that’s not the only way she can surprise us: Last night, at midnight, she unexpectedly released a project long in the making—an annotated and translated version of Swann’s Way, the first volume of Marcel Proust’s famed epic In Search of Lost Time. Keen observers have already known Swift to be a Proust disciple. Only someone with a Proustian sensibility of memory and love, obsessed with their own narrative subjectivity, could write lyrics like “Remembering him comes in flashbacks and echoes / Tell myself it’s time now, gotta let go / But moving on from him is impossible / When I still see it all in my head / In burning red.” In fact, Swift herself has admitted in interviews that the song “Enchanted” is actually a fictional exercise written from the perspective of an anxious, lovelorn M. Swann: “The lingering question kept me up / 2 am, who do you love? /I wonder ’til I’m wide awake / And now I’m pacing back and forth / Wishing you were at my door.” Now, she brings that essential kinship to bear on the text itself, revealing a French literary prowess she’d been hiding all these years.

In the storied tradition of Proust’s English translators, Swift has taken some liberties with the text in producing Swann’s Way (Taylor’s Version). During the famous scene in which M. Swann pursues Odette after she leaves a gathering without him and officially launches their love affair, using a sly pickup line to secure a first kiss, Swift has added a sudden burst of pouring rain, despite no such referent in the original French. Elsewhere, the Princesse des Laumes is described as wearing an anachronistic shade of red lipstick. Oddly, Proust’s characteristic lengthy and dense paragraphs have been re-rendered in stanza format, which may please some overwhelmed readers but serves to muddle the rhythm of the text. Otherwise, however, she’s produced a faithful, dreamy rendition, sure to pacify critics who continue to consider her a lightweight and to enhance her chances to one day NEGOT (National Book Award Emmy Grammy Oscar Tony). If that isn’t good news enough, in a few weeks, Swifties will also be able to purchase the audiobook LP set, Swann’s Way (Taylor’s Version) (Ten-Year Version), to hear Swift sing the entire text to the melody of “All Too Well.” I’ll see you in line at Borders!

David Klion (newsletter editor): The cover story of New York Magazine this week is a profile of Adam Tooze, the absurdly prolific economic historian whose dense, rigorous, and lucid books on everything from World War I to the 2008 financial crisis have earned him a cult following among the sort of extremely online dudes who were obsessed with Bernie Sanders three years ago. That includes me, of course, and I know many of the “Tooze Bros” named in the piece, including Jewish Currents contributor Alex Yablon. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I’ve been devouring Tooze’s latest tome, The Operation: Putin’s Challenge to the Western Financial Order, a masterful, definitive account of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine that was sold to Penguin Random House, researched, written, published, rapturously reviewed by Matt Zeitlin in The New Republic, and awarded a Los Angeles Times Book Prize over the course of the past week. Despite its 800 pages, The Operation is a brisk read, seamlessly synthesizing a jaw-dropping range of topics—from the intricacies of the Belarusian central bank to fluctuations in the global grain market to Joe Biden’s years of lobbying on behalf of Delaware’s shell company sector—to explain Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a major war in Europe in late February. It’s the kind of book that makes you wonder when (and whether) Tooze sleeps, how many research assistants he employs, and why anyone else bothers writing about any topic. I’m finding it riveting, as are approximately 30% of the members of my Diplomacy Slack.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Every film buff in New York this week, and around the country in the coming months, can only celebrate the discovery, restoration, and screening at Film Forum of the legendary lost masterpiece by the mysterious filmmaker Michel Habits d’Or, L’Aveugle sauvage (The Savage Blindman).

Habits d’Or was a companion of the future New Wave filmmakers Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer, Godard, and Rivette during their days and nights spent at the Cinémathèque. Habits d’Or, though he shared his friends’ passion for Bresson, Renoir, and Leo McCarey, was famously obsessed with the movie star Lyda Roberti, a stunningly beautiful Polish immigrant actress and former circus performer, who specialized in roles as a sexy blonde. At one point Henri Langlois, the head of the Cinémathèque, banned Habits d’Or after he violently attacked Langlois for canceling a screening of Million Dollar Legs, his favorite Roberti film.

The eccentric Frenchman worked as a hospital administrator for decades and shot L’Aveugle sauvage over the course of three years of Sundays. In it, he gives vent to his violent misanthropy, playing the eponymous blindman as he cracks and smacks the ankles and shins of people on the streets of Paris, in every case eliciting apologies from his victims. He considered the film in some ways an anthropoidal study, “une étude de la situation de l’aveugle en société.” Between ankle smackings, Habits d’Or goes from movie theater to movie theater on the Left Bank hoping to find a Lyda Roberi film showing somewhere. His ultimate failure is a perfect expression of the cynical worldview expressed in Habits d’Or’s disabused literary and film criticism, much of it published in left-wing magazines he famously refused to read.

L'Aveugle sauvage is a philosophical document, a documentary of a social experiment, and a sad tale of a frustrated talent. We’ll likely never have another chance to see this film again—a film its author never saw to completion, having lost his sight before its completion. Michel Habits d’Or was a truly savage blindman.

Before you go… April Fools’!