Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Tree Man

A young ranting man with a long disheveled beard has just spent 24 hours up an 80 foot sequoia tree in Seattle Washington, disrupting traffic and shutting down the streets.  He seems to have thrown at the police and the onlookers , who had gathered to watch him,in turn, fruits, pine cones and tree branches while refusing to listen to officers and other negotiators who were trying to bring him down. At some point,  he even bared his behind, despite the cold , and at another time sat quietly smoking a cigarette and oblivious to all the racket around him.

The public  reaction has mostly been sympathetic , with a twitter account dedicated to the " man in tree", and pictures splashed over the internet of young people holding signs and placards requesting that the man be left alone , and stating that trees are "free" for anyone to climb and sit on .

The New York times is quoting a "morning radio host musing : is there a metaphor in all of this ? , like the rest of us , in our own way, would like to climb a tree and be left alone?"

Maybe not a metaphor, but a symbolic gesture? The world seems to have gone mad, suddenly . Between the terror attacks in Europe, the incessant shouting of politicians, the dirt that is being splashed in all directions, and the obscene amount of money that is being spent during this election season --uselessly, should I add, we all seem to be wanting to go up a tree and find a refuge away from all this madness.

The latest? It seems the sibling relationship is the ideal one to forge a terrorist , or two, or three.
So if the other pre requisites are unemployment and lack of education, that makes a lot of T's in the Middle East.

In the 1930's, while the world was preparing in earnest for the second world war, one of the most important German writers of the 20th century, Robert Walser , a favorite of Kafka and Benjamin, volontarily  commited himself to an asylum in Austria to escape the madness that had taken hold in Europe, presumably to find sanity and categorically refusing to be freed . He remained there until his death in 1956.

Is it time to ask that asylums throughout the world  open their doors for the new refugees?
After all as Kurt Tucholsky once said :" You can't whistle against the ocean".

Thursday, February 9, 2012

An honorable man

Last Saturday, the representative of the Syrian regime started his speech at the United Nations by quoting Goethe, a cultural giant, and one of the most respected and admired literary figures of the 19th century. A classic ruse, that, unfortunately, never fails.

Try to quote Edgar Allen Poe, a doomed and genial poet, who lost his soul in the darkest alleys, who sought refuge in the arms of toothless prostitutes, who alleviated his heartache by sipping whiskey, and last but not least, who did not even have the decency to die correctly like every one else, and you are a depraved and immoral soul.

Does it matter that the poet was describing the world as he knew it, nightmarish, cruel,wild and unruly? Does it matter that he dug till his last breath to recover a trace of beauty? Not really. Quoting him, by association, makes you a piece of trash who hangs out after midnight in   cemeteries to compose with evil spirits.

But you quote Goethe, who, it has to be pointed out,  died correctly in his bed, and you immediately bask in a light of purity and splendor , in a harmonious world where rules are obeyed , moral lessons are drawn , and aristocratic values of delicateness and exquisiteness are displayed everywhere you turn.  The snow is always white, women have a most perfect profile, and young men fall in love with an abandonment and passion such that death itself becomes an ecstatic denouement to a torrent of life that is impossible to contain. Goethe's world is always whole , never senseless and firmly anchored towards the future.
And here was the Syrian representative, with his boot pressed deep into the throat of an agonizing child , and  his head surrounded  with a Goethean halo. 

The world  will need to call upon the memory of Edgar Allen Poe to remember again the definition of an honorable man. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Shock , Love and the Revolution

  Last week, The New York Times published a story about the two Mobarak sons who were recently thrown in jail. The two men apparently are so stunned to find themselves in the very cells that they had previously ordered built, that they  forget to ask questions and follow orders with  calm docility .

  But their shock must pale when compared to the shock of the Egyptian people who probably are pinching themselves many times a day to make sure they are not dreaming. Let us bet that within a short period of time, the Mobarak sons will drown in a sea of boundless  hilarity and a gallery of funny anecdotes , courtesy of the Egyptian people.

  And let us not forget the Israelis . They must be thinking they may as well invest in a Sphynx to predict the future.  For the past 60 years and  until only a few months ago,  they have been going to bed  every night secure in their belief that the Arabs have been so well beaten and starved into an idiotic stupor by their leaders ,they could not have done it better themselves .

  But in truth,every sign points to a spontaneous and sudden beginning to hose movements and effectively proving philosopher Hanna Arendt's view that if politics still carried any validity at all , it was because it was still capable of creating "miracles" .

 On Januray 13, 2011, "Les Nouveaux Chemins  de la Connaissance" from France Culture  hosted a full hour discussing Hannah Arendt's concept of the " beginning" or more aptly said the "commencement". The program could not have come at a more convenient time as the Tunisian Revolution ,carried with a rare dignity and limitless courage, had just started. The conversation , hosted by Raphael Enthoven, included Etienne Tassin, a specialist of Hannah Arendt's polictical work .

   For Arendt, in a  true Nietzschean vein  , political action is not only the " main condition of history" , but also , and this is where Arendt breaks with conventional ways of thinking,  it is what reveals the agent or the actor to himself. For her, a political act such as a revolution is never the result of a group of people coming together one morning and deciding to make the revolution, therefore labeling it  a product or a consequence of such a decision.

  Quite the contrary says Arendt, it is the revolution that gives birth to the actor or agent and makes him visible at the same time . The subject is the result, or as Tassin says , "the child of such an action". The action is justified by itself: It does not need a subject to justify it.
( Mohammed Bouazizi is the young man who ignited the Revolution but he does not justify it. )

  And  the action that gives birth to this new subject also guarantees his freedom for every commencement ,says Arendt, is also the commencement of one self. Man's freedom lies exactly in this possibility of commencing something new every day , something radically
 different, something that would give birth  to a new " who I  am", totally different from the old " what I am".

  Political action for the plurality finds its counterpart in the possibility of falling in love for the singular. We may wish for it ,but we can never plan for it. 
It can take us quite by surprise and change our  lives and our innermost being . We are born again , for best or for worst ,every time we have fallen in love  .

 Rafael Enthoven gives the example of Julien Sorel, the hero of 19th- century Stendhal's masterpiece "le Rouge et le Noir" . Sorel is Mr and Mrs de Renal' children preceptor, is housed on their property and falls hopelessly in love with Mrs de Renal . Tormented by a passion that he is unable to freely express , he decides one morning to find in himself the courage to hold Mrs de Renal's hand , or else he would be unfit to live , and therefore  will blow his brains.

 Although Sorel decides, he does not and cannot plan. The gesture remains totally spontaneous. " Julien Sorel's hand detaches itself from his body and  moves to join Mme de Renal's hand", says Tassin .At that moment, Julien becomes a totally different person and commences a new chapter in life . And the one who is actually the most stunned by this gesture is not Mrs de Renal, but Sorel himself ."There there are two Julien Sorel" , comments Tassin. "he one who decides to take Mrs de Renal's hand and the one who
takes it" .

 All of us , hopefully of course, have at some point in our lives "held Mrs de Renal's hand". We have closed our eyes and in a true state of disbelief, have plunged into the unknown .

 In both realms, the personal and the public, courage in action is what gives birth to the new born and reminds him every step of the way that he needs to remain faithful to that first day of commencement. 

Mohammed Bouazizi is the flame that will always remain in our hearts and light our paths 
 for he alone by his act, has restored its full meaning to what we call " freedom".

Monday, February 14, 2011


The people of Egypt are experiencing what Hannah Arendt describes in the” Life of the Mind “ as an “event breaking into the continuum of chronological time “.

For today, and since the beginning of their Revolution, they are in this exhilarating time zone between the “ no more” and the “ not yet”: everything seems possible because on the one hand, the past is slowly moving away and becoming an impossibility, while on the other, the future has not yet materialized. It only appears in a dense fog, displaying the colors of a sumptuous rainbow. Theirs is a privileged zone , where hope-drunken people are awaiting the birth of a new world .

People in that zone experience time differently from the way we, onlookers ,do.

For us, Time is a successions of nows, linked together in a continuously flowing stream of consciousness. ( Bergson) But for those actively participating in the Revolution, there is no stream, no past , no future but only an everlasing Now. Time is abolished , or better yet , has lost its relativeness and has stopped having a hold on them. They mock its laws , and by doing so , get closer to the gods than at any other time of their lives. They now participate in the divine essence, outside the world and outside Time, while getting ready to lay down the foundation of a new order. Revolutionaries live in the zone of the “ absolute”, where only the gods dwell .

Yesterday, Mohammed Al Baradei requested the immediate departure of the tyrant, declaring to the world that the Egyptian people want a “new beginning”. Mrs Clinton, operating in the Eastern Standard Zone responded by offering “ reforms”.

The world is scared of that new beginning , an uncertain future that has never been planned, and that the Egyptian people will have to reinvent on a daily basis . But the world forgets that new beginnings are what life is all about: For it is the essence of Nature to constantly regenerate itself through the process of deaths and rebirths, ends and beginnings. As Hannah Arendt says it so well, beginnings are a function of " natality”, and not “creativity”.

The Egyptians want a new beginning the way the European exiles wanted a new beginning when they first set foot in America. Those new immigrants never meant a beginning in the absolute sense of the word but were only aiming at restoring the values of justice and liberty that their native countries had shed .

The hippy movement in the 60’s was not a new beginning in the sense that it was born in a vacuum , but a movement aiming at restoring authenticity and returning to a nature that an industrialized society was leaving behind.

And when Karl Marx described socialism as the only just society of the future, all he was trying to do ( hard to believe but true) is find a way to restore Paradise on earth .

There are no new absolute beginnings because every new wave is the resurgence of an old one in a definite past and the one before it a resurgence of even an older one: and so forth until we reach the first initial wave --which is unreachable because it is outside of human history ( Hannah Arendt)

Nothing in the Egyptian Revolution points to an Islamic wave. All we see is people battered by years of hunger and humiliation seeking a better life . And if indeed the Internet was a major factor in the people’s move towards freedom, then it means that the Egyptians are seeking outside their own history, a foundation for their new beginning. There are very good chances that this foundation is the Democratic ideal

And if indeed there are Muslim slogans chanted , they are an attempt of the people to restore some of that old dignity and righteousness that was the hallmark of Islam in its most brilliant times.

Egypt is a five-thousand years old highly refined civilization with a sumptuous history and fabulous princesses backing it . Time and again, during those ancient and modern times, the Egyptians have come as a people and as a "we" , to make countless new beginnings.

Why not give them the benefit of the doubt ?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Mosque : A non-political issue.

The dispute over the establishment of a mosque close to the scene of the 9/11 tragedy

has blown open the hegemony of politics over all other kinds of public discourses.

There was a time when people’s relations were regulated not by what was “politically

correct”, but by something far more basic, that looked almost like a vague memory

of “pre biblical” times when happy human beings freely roamed  in Paradise.

 And by this “ something”, I mean tactfulness, and by extension, good taste.

Today , in view of all the post-modern laws that regulate our social behavior, that “

vague memory,” that remnant of the “ true thing” looks to us actually as good and as

awesome as a utopic reality. For there is not even the smallest effort to coat the

crudeness in our discourses with polite conventions, those little implicit signals between

human beings that imply that we can still find a common ground and that we can still be


There is no doubt that erecting that Muslim community center in downtown is politically

correct . Everything in the US constitution guarantees that right. But the question

remains: Is it in good taste? If the majority of the people who live in those quarters feel

awkward , wouldn’t it not be tactful to shelve the project for a while, until people feel

more comfortable with it? Of course it is. And insisting on the project seems to me

quite impolite and in bad taste.

On the other end of the spectrum, every time I hear the president called a “Muslim”, I

bristle at the slur and want to hold the Qur’an high over my head, the way a Jew would

brandish the “yellow star” every time he hears the word “ dirty jew".

And I have to hold my tongue not to shout on the rooftops and remind

everyone that the SS who guarded Auschwitz went to church every Sunday and cried at their dogs funerals.

For even if one were to think that all Muslims are worthless bastards, shouldn’ t they

shut up, if only because there are scores of Muslims who are enlisted in the US Army

and fighting and dying everyday defending this country?

Human communication based on conventions and politeness is what Kant would call

a “non conceptual” communication, as opposed to a “conceptual” communication

based on knowledge and sciences. Whereas the latter remains restrained within

the circles of specialists and scientists, the “non conceptual” communication is the

basis of a universal communication. To keep such exchanges within the confines of

international diplomacy instead of spreading it throughout all communities would be the

death of a meaningful and purposeful dialogue.VBJFNCN84B9U