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Nathan Goldman (managing editor): For years I’ve maintained that Ben Lerner’s best work is not one of the autofictional novels for which he is most famous, but rather his enigmatic 2006 poetry collection Angle of Yaw. So I was especially eager to read The Lights, the new volume of poems he released last fall. The book is preoccupied with some of the questions about language, politics, and their interrelation that emerged from his 2019 novel The Topeka School. In that book’s final scene, which unfolds at a protest outside an ICE office, the narrator reflects on the “people’s mic”: “It embarrassed me, it always had, but I forced myself to participate, to be part of a tiny public speaking, a public learning how to speak again.” In The Lights, Lerner delves further into the co-constitution of speech and community, frequently by meditating on music. In “The Stone,” he writes: “Imagine a song, she said, that gives voice to people’s anger . . . The anger precedes the song, she continued, but the song precedes the people, the people are back-formed from their singing . . . The voice must be sung into existence, so song precedes speech, clears the ground for it.” Lerner explores the same themes in the context of Jewish continuity in “The Chorus,” in which the speaker remembers his anxiety over introducing the Hanukkah song at his elementary school winter concert: “it’s horrible to separate from a chorus . . . and then return to the group and sing . . . There is always a gap between songs, traditions, and a child must bridge it (or there will be violence) and that’s what the songs themselves tell us if we listen.”

Lerner’s poems once eschewed autobiography, and when the lyric “I” appeared, it tended to obscure rather than ground or clarify, offering a subject whose identity could not be precisely mapped. (One untitled poem in his 2004 collection The Lichtenberg Figures opens, “I had meant to apologize in advance. / I had meant to jettison all dogmatism in theory and all sclerosis in organization. / I had meant to place my hand in a position to receive the sun.”) But the poetry in The Lights, perhaps informed by Lerner’s turn to the self in his fiction, is full of apparent references to his own life, sometimes related with disarming lucidity. These moments occasionally break the spell of language, as in “The Media,” when he writes, “I’m just clicking on things in bed, a review by a man named Baskin who says I have no feelings and hate art.” More often, though—like in the gorgeous, UFO-haunted title poem—the personal illuminates the high-concept abstraction it sits alongside, the interplay somehow exceeding solipsism: “I hold the back of his head and see / unexplained lights over him / that love makes, even if what I want in part / is to be destroyed, all of us / at once, and so the end of desire is caught in it.” Ultimately, just as Lerner’s fiction bears the mark of his poetry, his poetry now seems enriched by his experimentation with prose; in each form, he continues to approach new modes of togetherness in language, where “we are alone / and we are not alone with being.”

Jonathan Shamir (JC fellow): Susan Sontag’s only documentary, Promised Lands (1974), was banned by Israeli authorities on the grounds that it was “damaging [to] the country’s morale.” Sontag’s transgression: She offers a bleak snapshot of a shell-shocked Israeli society in the wake of its vertiginous fall from perceived invincibility following victory in the 1967 war into the disillusionment of defeat in the 1973 war.

Promised Lands avoids spectacular imagery and cogent narrative, offering instead a series of discrepant vignettes of Israel at a crossroads—from close-ups of charred corpses to oscillating worshippers at the Western Wall—and an eerie soundscape comprised of Jewish liturgy and bombshells. Here, the war is etched more on the land and in the faces of its inhabitants than codified in any sort of story. The only explicitly political visions are provided by two interviewees—who represent liberal and revisionist Zionist thinking—yet they are left nameless and their dialectic without any synthesis.

Despite her formal resistance, Sontag cannot totally evade the meaning-making machine of nationalism. While the film often depicts cemeteries and grieving families, other scenes signal where such grief may end up. In a waxwork museum, we are shown a lachrymose tableaux of Jewish history, as the Shema blares on repeat. Promised Lands ends with psychiatrists reproducing the stimuli of war to ostensibly help a traumatized patient, who cowers beneath his pillow—followed by a drill in preparation for the next war. Taken together, these scenes indicate how the state metabolizes grief to generate more violence: An unyielding narrative reinscribes the fixed position of eternal Jewish victimhood, constraining the future and perpetuating trauma.

If Sontag refuses to hand a readymade meaning over wholesale to the viewer, it is not because she rejects meaning-making; rather, she makes visible the process of struggling toward meaning, and its attendant political implications. As Yoram Kaniuk, an Israeli writer who is one of the film’s unnamed interviewees, puts it, turning to ancient Greeks: “It became like a tragedy: We were right, and they were right, and we fought and fought and fought. The end of it is either that one will destroy the other or that we live in some sort of a compromise.” He follows this analysis with a warning: “The Jews know drama; they don’t know tragedy.”

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): In many ways, Benjamin Balint’s Bruno Schulz: An Artist, A Murder, and the Hijacking of History (2023) is a return to the issues raised in his previous book. Kafka’s Last Trial (2018) was an account of the legal battle over a set of Kafka’s papers possessed by a former secretary of Max Brod, the friend of Kafka who was given (and refused to carry out) the task of destroying his writings. The question in that case was not only who was the rightful owner of these texts—the secretary’s family, the library at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, or the German Literature Archive in Marbach, Germany—but who can lay claim to Kafka himself, a Jewish writer who wrote in German.

This is much the same question addressed in Balint’s new book, about a similar literary figure. Bruno Schulz—a Polish Jew born in 1892, who spent most of his life in the medium-size Polish city of Drohobycz, now in Ukraine—was a writer of short stories and an artist who earned his living teaching art at a local high school. He was part of the minority of Polish Jews who lived and wrote in Polish, rather than Yiddish, and neither his stories nor his art have anything to say about Jewishness directly. When his town was occupied by the Nazis, he became the favored Jew of a local Gestapo officer, who had Schulz paint the walls of his childrens’ rooms. After Schulz was murdered by another Nazi officer 1942, these wall paintings were lost until they were rediscovered by German filmmakers in 2001. This raised the question of where the paintings belong: Should they remain where they were? Should they be moved to a local museum? Or was the work’s proper place Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial? Israel peremptorily settled the matter, apparently bribing local officials and sending a team to simply remove the works, restore them, and put them on display.

While Israel’s claim to Kafka was bolstered by his flirtation with Zionism, Schulz never even winked at the ideology; Israel considered him its property simply because he was a Jew killed by the Nazis, and because the state understands itself as the rightful heir to the culture the Nazis nearly obliterated. But are the circumstances of Schulz’s death—and the practical consideration that more people would see Schulz’s work in Jerusalem than in a provincial Ukrainian town—enough to justify uprooting his work from its home and to enlist it in the cause of Zionism? In his judicious and careful account, Balint presents all the parties’ cases fairly, but won’t accept that Israel has a right to such overreach. It’s hard for any reader of these two books not to see that Israel’s expropriation of Kafka and Schulz stands in for the state’s expropriation of all of Jewish life.