Saturday, 4 January 2014

Silence and Blogging

Years ago, back in the tumultuous sixties, Susan Sontag published one of her most interesting essays: 'The Aesthetics of Silence'.  Revisiting it recently, I discovered that it was even richer and deeper than I remembered.  In fact what I remembered was the most trivial thing about it, and was, I confess, something I’d read about it, rather from the essay itself.  This was the assertion that Sontag was thinking about entering, or had actually emerged from, a period of silence, at a time when people in the brittle, competitive New York intelligentsia of her acquaintance felt it ever encumbent upon themselves to ‘say’ as much as they could.  The essay, in this sense, purported to be the author’s retreat from New York’s omnipresent babble, rather than the exploration of the essential contradiction in modern art that it is.

Although she couldn’t have predicted it, Sontag’s essay preceded but also anticipated the cybernetic noise of our time.  God knows how many bloggers there are on the internet, and social media like Facebook and Twitter are absolutely reliant on our very human need to express ourselves.  Although she made the distinction early in her essay between expression and art, she went on to explain that some of the best proponents of silence in art (by which she meant reduction or minimalism), were inclined like Stein or Beckett to produce what appears to be mere repetitive babble, language so distilled that it can be freed of its meaning even as it attaches itself most firmly to exterior objects (‘A rose is a rose is a rose’).  So it’s possible that Sontag was inspired by what she perceived as the absence of silence , in all its contradictory permutations, to pen her remarkable essay. 

If few of us contributing to the cloud of cyberspace will make any claims to art, certainly the babble has seduced us.  Though no one has figured out a satisfactory way to be paid for it yet, we want to be out there.  There’s a challenge and a freedom in blog writing.  There are no gatekeepers or censors.  There are dangers involved - opening oneself to crazies and snoops, and for lack of independent proofreaders, having to wear more than a few typos.  But for writers like me who’ve been submitted to a measure of silencing, it’s a discipline, a way of keeping one’s hand in. 

Charlotte has been going for a couple of years now but before I created a blog for her I was in charge of the Independent Australian Jewish Voices opinion page.  This was because early in 2009 the Sydney Morning Herald ran an op-ed piece of mine condemning Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.   The response to it was surprisingly appreciative among Jews and non-Jews alike and it was circulated worldwide.  The IAJV were hopeful that in the light of this reception an honest conversation about Israel could be conducted on its website.  We solicited comment but once we winnowed out the trolls and the one letter writer who wrote on anything to anyone who’d print her, no one else bothered to engage with us.  Jews here in Oz are sadly, irredeemably polarised.  The people who read the Jewish News or J-Wire, claiming to represent mainstream Jewish opinion, hate whatever I say on the subject, and like-minded groups such as Jews for a Democratic Society, or Jews against the Occupation, tend to go unheard, are ignored by our governments and satirised by writers like Howard Jacobsen.  It’s a dismal situation and a potent form of censorship, but since Jews are still, in numeric terms, an insignificant minority, it’s been extremely hard to change.  I ended up with a page with only my opinions on it, and eventually let it lapse, though my interest in the subject has never waned.  The IAJV newsletter is still going strong and support for what it stands for appears to be growing but how long it will take to convince the most obdurate apologists here for Israel’s policies is another question.  The boycott, disinvestment and sanction or BDS campaign, to raise just one issue, is as contentious as ever.  That the same nonviolent tactic worked in isolating apartheid South Africa and dismantling its racist regime is conveniently overlooked, even among those most eager to heap praise on Nelson Mandela after his death.

But back to Charlotte.  An alter ego adopted for a book I'd edited in Canada, she became a blog when I started to fiddle with the idea of self-publishing.  A manuscript I’d been working on for years was getting nowhere, rejected again and again, redrafted over and over, and the thought of turning it into an e-book was put forward as a possibility.  I also wanted to do something with my art work.  It was only when I set up my own website and Charlotte was moved to it that the disparate aspects of my being began to coalesce.  Covering literary and political concerns and illustrated by my pictures, the blog began to gather a readership.  But I’d written nothing about Palestine, an issue that’s consumed me ever since I began researching its history nearly a quarter century ago, and I’ve often wondered if the novel I’d written about it will ever see the light of day.

The situation in the Middle East is as explosive as ever, yet the trail between what happened to the Palestinian majority when Israel was established as a state in 1948 has never been properly acknowledged by the West until now perhaps, when it's arguably too late.  Bolstered by its ability to neuter US power, Israel goes its own way.  The settlements continue to grow on the occupied territories; our own government questions whether they are illegal.  As the encroachment proceeds any hope of a viable Palestinian state diminishes, at the very same time that the acceptance of one is cynically put forward as a means of establishing peace.  What we need to understand, as writers like Miko Peled and many others have pointed out, is that Israel-Palestine is now effectively one state, and it’s an apartheid one.  There are different laws for Israeli Jews and Palestinians, whether Israeli citizens or not.   There are different towns, even different roads they can drive on.  The presence of a Jewish-dominated state has encouraged the worst kind of racism, among illegal West Bank settlers and Jews within Israel proper, breathtaking in its arrogance and ahistoricity.   

It’s a very real possibility that the civil war in Syria and the unrest in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, will spill over Israel’s borders.  What then?  Israel is a militaristic state, the only one in the region with a nuclear capability.  What might be the consequence of this?  Here in Australia we can be lulled into thinking that all this is remote from us, but the story of Ben Zygier, the young Australian who signed up for Mossad and goofed things up for them out of his need to prove his loyalty,  demonstrates just how close the ties between Australia and Israel are, and how misguided they can be.  The issue of Palestine is not a remote one for us at all.

The drawing accompanying this current post is of Yehudi Ha-Kohen, a character in my novel.  A kabbalist adept, he appears like a ghost now and then in what has been evidently taken as a uniformly realist work of fiction, but is there to remind of us of one of the most important precepts of this line of Jewish mysticism.  Long ago, long before Israel was conceived of as a modern state, the kabbalists wrote that the troubles of the world came from too much head and not enough heart.  Too much male and not enough female, they said.  But that we could pay attention now.  My guess is Susan Sontag would.


  1. Love this post Sarah, and agree with everything you say. I hadn't though thought of it in terms of apartheid but you are right. You are certainly right about the hypocrisy and one-eyedness of the supporters of the status quo. The whole situation is horrendous. Unfortunately, the older one gets the more one loses one's idealism, one's belief that human nature can improve. I was once convinced that it could and that it was happening, but that was probably because I was moving among the converted. The one thing that social media - the "noise" out there - has shown is that the converted, those who believe in non-violence, are indeed the minority. A belief in and practising non-violence has to start at home but I don't see much of it happening ...

  2. Thanks, Sue. Yes, as one grows older and marginally wiser you realise that in every era and generation it's a courageous minority that will stand up for human rights. If the conditions are favourable that minority can become a large one, if unfavourable it will shrink accordingly. I believe that we live in an era in which we've been terribly let down by our leaders. Don't know exactly what will become of it. To read some of the comments in social media, especially in relation to asylum seekers, is to be horrified and dismayed by the racism and ignorance that's been encouraged to flourish. It appears as well that the same moral bankruptcy and lack of insightful leadership has occurred in Israel as it has in Oz - buying votes by telling the majority of citizens what they want to hear. That we will all become rich just by buying houses and shares and consumables, that we can separate ourselves from the woes of the world by turning into international criminals and the land into a quarry for multinational profit. And our government wants more on the Anzacs in the national curriculum ...

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