13 January 2012

Oblivion Should Discover a Ritual



amos elon 

christopher hitchens

It is not what they built. It is what they knocked down.It is not the houses. It is the spaces in between the houses.It is not the streets that exist. It is the streets that no longer exist.It is not your memories which haunt you.It is not what you have written down.It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.What you must go on forgetting all your life.And with any luck oblivion should discover a ritual.You will find out that you are not alone in the enterprise.Yesterday the very furniture seemed to reproach you.Today you take your place in the Widow's Shuttle.--from James Fenton's 'German Requiem'


Christopher Hitchens, in his memoir, Hitch 22, references this poem by his friend James Fenton in reference to the discovery of Hitchens own Jewish identity--crediting the Israeli historian Amos Elon with teaching him about the vanished-by-destruction Jewish community of Germany in his terrific work, The Pity of It All:  A History of Jews in Germany, 1743-1933.
"My late friend Amos Elon has written the best history of the German-Jewish relationship," Hitchens explains during a stirring passage in which he describes confronting the Jewish ghosts of his mother's Jewish past, among abandoned Jewish homes and synagogues in Brelau and Kempno.

It's funny.  In the Acknowledgments following his footnotes, Elon himself writes, "I am endebted to many authors, but my thinking about German Jews before the rise of Nazism was primarily affected by the learned insights of three great historians far more expert than I:  Peter Gay, Fritz Stern, and my friend of many years, the late George Mosse, to whose memory I dedicate this book."

As I read Hitchens quoting Elon quoting his friend James Fenton, I thought of Elon dedicating his work to Mosse, a teacher of monumental importance for a generation of historians, erecting bricks in the illusory memory edifice of a lost nation.

While being wildly entertained reading the bulk of Hitchens' memoir, there was a gnawing pain of absence in his Jewish learning--too easily dismissed by the classic hubris of his atheism, the excessively black and white dichotomization of religion or no religion; and the tragedy of his mother's complex sense of Jewishness.

A pity that time ran out on Hitchens' searching soul.  It would have been interesting to see him deepen his understanding, if only to have the privilege of develop more entertaining heresies.

"And with any luck, oblivion should discover a ritual.
You will find out that you are not alone in the enterprise."

So it is that we who survive continue reading, digging deeper, and in the mine's darkness of history and time, we see the flash of a miner's helmet down the path, joining their light with ours.

1 comment:

Susan Blackburn said...

Hi Andy, I left a long comment but it disappeared into the either. I will now give the abridged edition. I've always been a sucker for an English accent, even when it's not spoken but written. I was a big Hitchens fan because, whether I agreed with him or not, I think that we need more argument, discussion what-have-you about big ideas and big questions. Plus, however annoying Hitchens could be due to prejudices and excessive carousing, he stood up for Salman Rushdie during the fatwa and didn't give an inch to the hypocrisy and cowardice that was rampant in the publishing world at that dismal time. Regarding GOd is Not Great ( got it hot off the press, in hardcover), I was very disappointed. Hitchens set a self-defined straw dog, God and then failed to distinguish between God, religion, spirit, soul, nefesh and kishkes (that thing in your gut that compels you tp be a mensch and be ethical, distinguishing wrong from right. Hitchens defined religion and God as, basically, all things that he despised about the self-defined opponent. The good in religion/God/soul, spirit, civilized behavior and guts were excluded by him as aspects of God/Religion. To me, the book was intellectually dishonest but I am also aware that he needed the money and who didn't enjoy Hitchens taking on the Fallwells of the world. Wish he were around to have a debate with Rick Santorum.
Hitch-22 is a much different work because Hitchens's friendships and the love and devotion evoked by the descriptions contained within the memoir confirm my defintion of the journey of the spirit. Namely, that the good in us and the love we give to others and the good that comes out of sustaining and being part of a community of friends is always paid forward to increase the neshama and spirit of the world we inhabit. As an individual, my spirit is lifted by the wondrous existence of public intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens. Sometimes you have to be outrageous to get heard. And be willing to take the abuse just for saying what you think, even if you are not trying to convince others to agree.
Shabbat Shalom.