I just saw a person pour appetite suppressant into their coffee. Is Plato happy, distressed, or simply unimpressed? Explain your answer in haiku.
Ari Shavit, My Promised Land, New York: Spiegel and Grau of Random House Publishing (2013).
The nation of Israel, the last great colonial enterprise of the Western world, exists in a harsh, hot climate, surrounded by enemies that deny it a right to exist. For years, it served as beacon of democracy and Western military supremacy, but now it threatens to fall into theocracy and political isolation. Israeli journalist Ari Shavit presents his own personal history of Israel with My Promised Land, a fast-reading account of a young nation's struggles along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea.
Shavit drives his narrative forward with extensive interviews. Many of his discussions feature the complex heroes and villains of the Zionist enterprise: settlers, warriors, and spies; capitalists, socialists, and politicians. Though he cuts the interviews with dashes of biography, historical context, and personal reflection, in the main Shavit allows his protagonists to co-author his book, so that they can defend their hopes, dreams, and doubts.
Shavit begins with a chapter out of his own family history. In the closing moments of the nineteenth century, an English-Jewish ancestor visited Palestine for the first time. He surveyed the countryside, and settled there a few years later. The Jewish settlers of the late 19th century tackled the problem of creating a Jewish homeland in a way similar to other herculean colonial enterprises, such as the Suez Canal; they raised capital from abroad, and then added tremendous amounts of human labor. They bought land from the waning elite of the Ottoman Empire. When necessary, they forced the removal of the serfs and tribes that had occupied the land for centuries. Intellectually, the Jewish immigrants felt tied to Europe, but they knew that Europe no longer wanted them; in the desert they began to forge a new identity, one with less room for the individual spirit and conscience, and much more aggressive than what they inherited from their diaspora ancestors.
The European Jews, imitating European colonial powers, looked at Palestine as a backwards, empty land. They never saw the Arabs as inhabitants. They only saw an empty land open to the aspirations of Jewish nationalism. The Jewish settlers especially sought out the rich coastal soils of Palestine. They wanted collective economic success and secular socialism, not the restoration of Biblical landmarks in the hills to the east. In time, the disenfranchised Arab serfs began to push back against the newcomers with sporadic murders and assaults on Jewish settlements.
The Jews responded to the violence with calls for the forced migration of Arabs out of Palestine. By 1938, the language of David Ben Gurion echoed that of world leaders working elsewhere: "I support compulsory transfer. I do not see anything immoral in it."
Shavit then traces how individuals like Shmaryahu Gutman drew on ancient Jewish symbols of resistance, like the mass suicide at the Masada fortress in 73 CE, thus "using the Hebrew past to give depth to the Hebrew present and enable it to face the Hebrew future." A rootless nation searched for its Hebrew past like a long forgotten spring and, once rediscovered, held onto those ancient waters with emotions that tottered between tenacity and desperation.
Jewish survival in Palestine required collective organization for social, political, and military conquest. The end of the British Mandate heralded a new era of Zionism. The Zionist political leaders rushed into action in 1948 and sliced off a portion of the region designed to ensure a Jewish majority in the newborn country of Israel.
Shavit cannot help but look back at his country's history with awe, love, and pride--and so Shavit's presentation is as personal as it is insightful. As a journalist he expands that history by inserting the memories, fears, and dreams of other Israelis. His emotional exploration of Palestine brings with it a humor and sadness all its own, one that fights against the coldness of a historical narrative.
Perhaps his most effective chapter relates the crisis of Lydda, 1948, in its absolute tragedy. The fatigued, desperate Jewish soldiers scrambled to the very edge of the Arab village of Lydda. And then, assuming the worst, the soldiers (including Moshe Dayan) charged through town with armored vehicles, guns blazing. Israel's founding political leaders abstained from making a clear decision to force the removal of the Arabs from the village, thus preserving their reputation in Europe and America. The absence of oversight turned their young Israeli soldiers into aimless cannons which the Arab civilians had to dodge through flight. The Arabs abandoned their dignity and homes for the sake of momentary security, and straggled out of Lydda (and many other villages) on long, deadly marches. Throughout the early years of Israel, trepidation gnawed at the backbone of Jews and Arabs alike, prompting them to edge deeper into the depths of human behavior.
Interestingly, Shavit mourns the loss of the Israeli character that inspired Zionism in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. "On the one hand [Zionism] was a colonialist enterprise. It intended to save the lives of one people by the dispossession of another. In its first fifty years, Zionism was aware of this complexity and acted accordingly...but after 1967, and after 1973, all that changed...." The victories and traumas of 1967 and 1973 forever altered the political landscape of the Middle East, and the social fabric of Israeli society.
Israel initiated the Six Day War of 1967 to create a political buffer between themselves and the surrounding Arab nations, and in anticipation of an Arab attack just over the horizon. Israel caught its rivals completely off guard, and won the war with superior preparation and complete surprise. The victories of 1967 left Israel drunk with victory, and far more land than they had hoped for at the outset of their enterprise.
The occupied territories soon complicated the problems of Zionism. Many defeated Arabs were unable to immigrate to another country, and to this day they remain imprisoned in small tracts of land in Gaza and the West Bank. Though tragic and inhumane, the experiences in Gaza and the West Bank are not a second Holocaust. As Shavit says, 'no one can seriously think there is any real similarity. The problem is that there isn't enough lack of similarity. The lack of similarity is not strong enough to silence once and for all the evil echoes." And so the Israelis live in close and dangerous proximity to the people they displaced, and those people watch them day after day. The Israelis look back with wary eyes, "the jailers imprisoned by their jail."
Israelis desperately want to believe in their country--their nation--as established fact. They want release from the terrible fear that haunts the low-land orchards, the ancient alleys of Jerusalem, and the drug-soaked discotechs of Tel Aviv. But Shavit sees no release from the fear. Modern Israelis lack the secular hardness of their grandparents and great-grandparents. The melting pot of 1948 now congeals into separate small-minded elements: right-wing, left-wing, Oriental Jew, ultra-orthodox, capitalists, settlers, and rootless Palestinian refugees. The soft selfishness of individualism undermines the collective consciousness necessary for survival in the Middle East. He anticipates a second Holocaust, easier than the first due to the small spot of land upon which the Jews now live, and the tools of nuclear destruction that he believes will soon sprout among Israel's many Arab neighbors.
Shavit repeatedly calls his book a personal history. He offers somewhat skewed interpretations of many key events. For example, he calls the 1936 Arab revolt "a collective uprising of a national Arab-Palestinian movement," but leaves the revolt poorly explained and poorly reasoned, ignoring the way that economic modernization can threaten tribal honor; he also never identifies the key leaders of the revolt, or their localized motives.
Yet Shavit writes with a journalistic candor, and he conveys epic history. To tell his story, he chooses certain perspectives and subjects as stepping stones along the path. My Promised Land, therefore, never presumes to be a comprehensive volume. It assumes knowledge of pivotal figures like David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, and Golda Meir. It also assumes a familiarity with British colonialism, the First and Second Worlds Wars, and the conflicts of 1948, 1967, and 1973. Yet Shavit's use of expanded, effusive stanzas of dialogue help paint the story of Israel in powerful, nuanced strokes of darkness and light.
John Keegan, The Face of Battle. New York: Penguin, 1978.
In the Face of Battle, John Keegan explores the experience of soldiering in three significant (and very different) battlefields from British history. He begins with the mud, steel, chivalric culture of Agincourt. The pages turn, and soon the massive infantry squares appear through the gun-smoke shrouds of Waterloo. A century later, hundreds of thousands of soldiers die among the wire and trenches of the Somme.
Keegan adopts a rapidly moving third-person perspective to tell the story of each battle. The book's unusual structure helps Keegan peer deep into the mechanisms of organized violence. He examines the decision-making of generals, but frequently leaves the generals behind to focus on the what the great masses of troops actually saw and did during their respective battles. He examines the weapons and armor of the participants, but also asks about their hometowns and moral outlook. He differentiates between the officers and the enlisted soldiers, and while he does not ask about the source of class divisions, he shows enough interest in them to suggest how such divisions effect behavior on the battlefield. For each battle, he opens with a short examination of the battle's larger context--or at least the campaign of which it was a part. He then examines the particulars of the battle, with its turns, stages, and outcomes. He then assesses the practicalities of the various matchups that occurred. In Agincourt, for example, he asks how archers fared against infantry and cavalry, and what close-combat looked like to an infantryman in 1415. After examining the action, he addresses particular moral puzzles that each arise during each battle. Why did Henry V demand the execution of his French prisoners? Why did the British leave their wounded on the field at Waterloo? Why did soldiers of the First World War propel themselves out of the trenches and into harm's way? He takes what he learns from all this and applies it to a final chapter, where he considers the future of war, and the changes of technology that effect it; he ultimately supposes that war will grow increasingly horrific, regardless of the perks and amenities nations attempt to provide their armies, such as pensions and air conditioned tanks.
Keegan's book celebrates its three battles as moments of human interest, filled with deep failings and horrific exaltations. His emphasis on personal action and individual decision-making wins steep dividends. He recognizes that "ordinary soldiers do not think of themselves, in life-and-death situations, as subordinate members of whatever formal military organization it is to which authority has assigned them, but as equals within a very tiny group...." As a consequence, much of battle consists of leaders attempting to hold individuals to a collective fate, while at the same time trying to break the will of individuals in the opposing force. Thus, he pays keen attention to why Napolean's heavy cavalry units never quite crossed swords with the British infantry squares, but instead skirted their ranks, fled, and charged again. And he shows that French men-at-arms avoided confronting archers, not necessarily because of the danger archers presented, but because could find no honor or monetary reward for attacking and capturing individuals from such a low station.
Keegan, in short, unpacks the physical and psychological effects of warfare from the perspective of the individual, and then assesses the gritty details that make warfare so untenable, yet so horribly persistent throughout the years. As a work of history, Keegan grounds it in three very specific times and places, rather than attempting a generalized psychological exploration of organized violence. It is all the more convincing for his deliberate attempts to evoke specific moments in history: the mud-choked rise of infantry from the trenches, the screaming of horses before a fully-formed square.
Ernest Hemingway made the Iceberg Principle famous. When writing a story, he felt that a writer could strengthen it by omitting key facts or events. Omission can help people feel something more powerfully, rather than simply understanding it. It evokes eeriness and mystery, and (at best) curiosity rather than befuddlement. Hemingway took his method seriously enough to mention it in more than one book. In that way, he clued his readers in on how to read his work. He expected them to search for subtext and, later, to ask themselves why they were able to fill in the blanks that he created.
He uses the term 'iceberg' to visualize his approach in his story Death in the Afternoon. An iceberg floats about the surface of the ocean. A small portion is visible above the water. But its most significant mass remains beneath the surface. So then with good literary fiction: something vital must remain beneath the surface. The strength and power is beneath the surface, however explicit and powerful it may charge through the mind of the writer.
Of course, Hemingway did not invent the idea of omission, though he popularized it as a deliberate tool. Shakespeare omits the title couples' sexual history in Macbeth, and omits a great deal of the father-son relationship in Hamlet. He never tells us where Feste the clown is returning from in Twelfth Night, and why he ever left the side of the grieving Olivia. Shakespeare did not invent omission either. Homer's epics examine only core of ancient myth, and leave out much besides. The Bible, especially the Old Testament, leaves much to mystery.
Omission also appears in plays, like Terrence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea, and Kirk Lynn's new play Your Mother's Copy of the Kama Sutra. I won't express how Kirk Lynn's play uses it. Go to Playwrights Horizons and find out for yourself (closes May 11). In Rattigan's the Deep Blue Sea, the playwright never fully reveals source of sexual dissatisfaction between a separated couple. And he never reveals why an ex-medical doctor spent time in prison. In an odd way, the characters in Rattigan's play suffer from old-fashioned British restraint. But in Rattigan's hands it is a device that strengthens the story, rather than simply imitating mid-century British life.
Omission is a powerful dramatic tool.
I think, however, it's possible to go too far with the use of omission. It's not a fix-it device or a band-aid. Playwrights and directors and workshop-companies often describe a need for 'rough edges' and 'missing pieces.' These are necessary, but must be counterbalanced with the artists' responsibility to reveal us to ourselves--and to reveal themselves to us.
Perhaps more importantly, the iceberg metaphor deserves another look. An iceberg is made of frozen water. Spin it, tumble it over, let it melt a little. As it floats in the water, most of the iceberg will remain submerged beneath the ocean surface. Only a narrow fragment will peak above. From the perspective of the iceberg (or its viewer) it does not much matter which part is submerged and which part is above the surface. It will look about the same.
The difference between literary omission and an iceberg is this: it matters a great deal, when writing, what you leave below the surface, and what details you make explicit to your audience. Writing is not a frozen chunk of arctic. It is something wholly unto itself. The greater the writer, the better they know what to omit and what to state. It is an ultimate moment of craft.
J. M. Meyer is a playwright and social scientist studying at the University of Texas at Austin.