The Smile of the Lamb, David Grossman

In honor of David Grossman winning the Man Booker Prize for his newest novel, A Horse Walks into a Bar, I decided to review his first ever novel, The Smile of the Lamb (published in Hebrew in 1982, and translated into English in 1989). For those who may not be familiar with Grossman’s work, I urge you to pick up one of his books for your upcoming summe891158541.jpgr beach reads.

I read this book slowly, both because the narrative is indelibly engrossing, packed with detail and depth, while simultaneously, the pace has trouble pulling you along. There is a lot to absorb in each of the characters, and I didn’t want to rush through and miss a seemingly offhand detail, that ends up of consequential importance.

It has the trappings of a classic love story—there is romance, betrayal, war, and death. However, the stories settings impart the novel with considerably more weight than the the banal back-and forth desperation of ill-fated lovers, rocking back and forth between utter desperation and mind-altering  hope.

This might be the first novel in Israeli literature to portray the Palestinian “other” and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in fictional terms. The main characters are Khilmi and Uri, the former is an older Palestinian man who lives in a cave near the Palestinian village of Andal, where Uri, an idealist young Jewish Israeli, (modeled after Grossman) and his company commander, Katzman, are stationed. Katzman is having an affair with Uri’s wife, Shosh, and for all intents and purposes, Uri doesn’t appear bothered. He spends most of the novel in Khilmi’s cave, first at will, and then under duress. The story balances multiple competing plots, each chapter told though first person narration of one of the four main characters. What makes the novel compelling is the overarching echoes of cruelty paired with an overwhelming sensitivity and vulnerability the main characters explore regarding their distinct painful and tragic circumstances.

The person in whose head I most enjoyed spending time, because of his penchant for magical realism, is Khilmi, a storyteller extraordinaire. Now, almost thirty years after Grossman’s first novel, Israeli novelists shy away from such portrayals; romanticizing the other through the rhetorical tactics of mysticism. But as much as this mode of discourse is outdated and no longer readily employed by writers, it appears as if Grossman wrote the whole book only to show the world the inner-workings of Khilmi’s mind—to give his unique perspective of truth a voice. Grossman advances claims about the conflict that could only be understood through a narrative imbued with Khilmi’s logic. In this sense, he is not romanticizing the Arab other, making him exotic by imbuing him mystical qualities of time travel, weaving the past and the present, telepathy, or connecting with souls through his Lemon and Terebinth trees, but rather, the conceit itself is a statement on the absurdity and irrationality of the conflict.

Uri and Katzman, by novel’s end, have given up on any attempt to find truth or justice. I would use stronger language; Grossman spits in the face of truth or justice, or of the practical use of these concepts Palestine of the 80’s.  Perhaps when the book was published, readers understood Khilmi to be the “noble savage”, but now, with the rightwards shift of Israeli politics, and religion’s outsized place in Israeli society– the reminiscence of the temples, miracles, and myriad Kingdoms, this history is advanced as a justification for the present, often in terms so ludicrous that they that verge on the mystical.

Using the past as guidebook, or excuse for the present is not just the esoteric rantings of a madman, but a practical political ploy to win more votes, and lead us further from freedom, or justice. These notions are often employed as dictates of intellectual thought and persuasion, and Grossman exposes the inherent dichotomies in using objective notions of truth and justice, in a place whose facades are so replete with proclamations of both, while on the inside, practically crumbling to the ground from their lacking.

It is my belief that the thorniest, and most contentious aspects of the conflict lie not in the settlements, or the future of Jerusalem, or where to draw the borders, but in the narrative.

Uri tells Katzman: “You see, it isn’t his cave, it isn’t the lemon tree or the grape bower. It’s the lies. It’s the blue tunnel into his right eye where words flow like fiction. . . . And whenever I argue with Katzman about the occupied territories, I answer him through Khilmi, using Khilmi’s arguments against him. That way I can slip out between the two kinds of justice.”

Grossman doesn’t abandon the notions of justice and truth outright; all the characters search for it on their own terms.  In the end, Khilmi’s own logic to try and make sense of the circumstances is not romantic, its not imbuing the other with a mystical power, maybe Grossman just doesn’t believe any truth or justice exist. And if this truth remains objective, then it surely isn’t useful, “we don’t really know much about the Arabs. We buried them beneath our contempt.”

Katzman expresses similar contempt for justice, when describing his insecurity with his new position as commander, he laments that notions of justice may be just a ruse:

“But there was a nagging fear that underlay his excuses, like a pea under a dozen of mattresses, that maybe there is no justice, maybe there can never be. The concept of justice was probably insidious. He’d always felt that, only now he was condemned to take part in some cruel experiment designed to verify this hypothesis. He was governor of twenty-five thousand people who didn’t want him there. And by his efforts to maintain the framework of their daily lives, by bringing in another bus line, repairing the bumpy roads, obtaining uniforms for the junior soccer league in town, or whatever, he had only managed to compound the injustice, and bind it even more tightly to the groundwork of reality.”

Grossman is fighting back against the religious and philosophical beliefs that hold that truth will free us from all spiritual, intellectual and political bondage. Those who want to be free need to seek the truth through the data available to him or her—but what if this data is apocryphal to begin with?

“Before he told me that truth is a natural force. That’s what he called it: a strong, vital force that required nurturing and protection, though like any other force in nature, it’s utterly despotic, and can split a man down the middle in its haste to be translated into action. “

For the sake of space, I didn’t provide any biographical information on Grossman, but he has a very interesting life story, and has written many best-selling non-fiction books. So if you’re looking for a book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I would highly advise one of them. Read his Paris Review interview, here .


On Balance: Adam Phillips, Pt. II

(This is part two of my review of Adam Phillips’, On Balance. Part I is here).

On What is Fundamental“, a lecture Phillips gave to the Columbia Psychoanalytic Society, covers both the social and psychological aspects of the 21st century phenomenon  of fundamentalism. He starts with the fact that the fundamental things in life are usually the ones that lead people to lose their composure, and no matter of education, or self-imposed civility can regulate this tendency. And so, if we want to learn how to achieve balance, we need to first understand it’s opposite? Nope, sadly, Phillips’ stays clear of such sententious advice, and instead dives deep in the paradoxes and nuances involved in both fundamentalist emotional and social states.

What is Fundamentalism?

This essay felt relevant to our current socio-political reality. While balance is still idealized, it appears to have taken a back seat, amidst both real and imagined fears, espoused by both sides of the political spectrum. Fundamentalism is pitted against democracy, because, while democrats revere debate, fundamentalists have a difficult time accepting rival claims.The difference between fundamentalists and democrats, in Phillips view, is that the lines of constraint are fixed for the former, while for the latter, they may be redrawn to a small degree, by a small number of ‘legitimate’ people. However, all contemporary liberal democracies don’t believe that everything is negotiable; many European countries set limits to free speech around incitement to racial hatred, and most democracies limit incitement to harm. This much is clear.

Why does fundamentalist rhetoric elicit such uncompromising responses from the modern liberalists on the other side—can you only fight fire with fire? How do we escape the liberal conundrum, whereby “we” (used in this context as the secular, modern liberals) avoid violating our core beliefs in the ways we defend them? And who has the authority to define the parameters of a fundamentalist—do our definitions of fundamentalism aptly describe the current reality of the processes we’re witnessing, or do they only serve political interests?

A tad idealistic, but more germane now than ever, Phillip’s quotes the liberal philosopher, John Gray, and his goals for liberalism:

“Liberalism is not a partisan claim for the universal authority of a particular morality, but the search for terms of coexistence between different moralities.”

If today’s political landscape proves anything, we might conclude that liberals have failed at this project.The modernist liberal and the fundamentalist give into what Freud termed resistance—Both sides feel that they have access to some deeper truth, which the other side refuses to acknowledge. If the other side could only see things as they were, we could live as we should, in a world dictated by God, or by the relevant secular laws of the land.

Narratives of conflict between modernists and fundamentalists are a mainstay feature of our modern international landscape: from the clash of multi-culturalism versus assimilation in Europe, ISIS in the Middle East, and the rise of the alt-right in America. Fundamentalism is not reserved for minority groups on the fringes—fundamentalist tendencies are both a characteristic of the religious right, and the secular, liberal left. If coexistence is our last hope, what tools can we employ against those who do not believe in coexistence—who value their fundamental ideas over their own lives?

Freud’s Schema as a Model

Phillips, as an avid Freudian, uses fundamentalism to help understand Freud’s seminal theory of the super-ego, id, and ego. In classical Freudian thought, the ego acts as a sort of referee between two conflicting, fundamentalist parts; the super-ego, which dictates our biological drives, and the id, which provides the moral dictates.

For Phillips, the modernist has a role akin to that of the ego. He tries to find a compromise, and live as satisfyingly as he can, while tempering his potentially murderous desires. Phillips’s model of the mind as a war of contending fundamentalisms provides his answer for how to deal with fundamentalists—which is, in some ways, not to deal with them, but to seek for co-existence, understood as a mutually agreed-upon acceptance of the other’s existence. This search for the terms of co-existence between competing moralities is a fitting definition for psychoanalysis.

“Rather like us secular, liberal moderns observing in some trepidation the fundamentalisms of the East and the West, the ego sees itself as the one who establishes—who looks for—the most harmonious relations possible; like the ego, we see ourselves as the only one’s capable of observation and reflection while they blindly go their violent, self-righteous ways.” “That in short, where fundamentalism was, there rationality can be; where revelation and scripture was, there conversation can be.” (Phillips, p.65).

He takes the comparison one step further, into a territory that is far too Freudian to be truly applicable, but nonetheless is useful, as he touches on some important insights:

He relates to the commonly articulated notion that fundamentalist movements of our day in age should not be viewed as some ancient apparition—they may reject the scientific rationalism of our current civilization, but fundamentalist movements have evolved in response to this new system, ultimately developing a symbiotic relationship with modernity. As Olivier Roy, the French sociologist explains in his seminal book, Globalized Islam, fundamentalism is thus both a product and agent of globalization. (He refers to the current wave of Islamic extremism as neo-fundamentalism, read a synopsis of his theories here).  New conditions have forced millions to reassess their religious traditions, which were created for a different type of society.

So, how does this fit Freud’s schema? That childhood is religion, and adolescence, or “growing up”, is comparable to the transition that takes place from religious traditionalism to secular modernity. A child is a ultimately a fundamentalist; he seeks the adoration of his parents at all costs—known as the Oedipus complex. Yet, these infantile desires are not made for our society, and a child must thus “sacrifice” his desires, trading it in for a less gratifying, but hopefully more productive pattern, that is personal growth, progress, and maturation.

So What?

Phew, now that that’s over, Phillips ends his essay on a depressing, somewhat contradictory note, attempting to answer the conundrum of why secular modernists have failed to persuade the traditional fundamentalists?

Because, “When we talk about these issues in this way, our liberal vocabulary begins to sound meager; words like ‘compromise,’ ‘negotiation’, discussion’, ‘persuasion’, ‘progress’—unmoored from any shared ground for disagreement—seems feeble.”

To make this point more poignant, he asks what kind of compromise should we hope to reach with a convicted racist, or how could we persuade a Palestinians that the Israelis are well meaning?

So, yes, indeed I do agree that civil influence, coexistence, and conciliation of rival claims may seem like a worthy, albeit lofty, Utopian solution, more fitting for those sitting in universities, or the perennial optimists among us. A lesson I learnt in Israel, one which, much to my dismay, may prove beneficial to American’s in the coming years: “the more horrified we are, the more committed we become to the dream of unity.”

Perhaps being truly horrified is the only way to engender change.

“What fundamentalism highlights for us—if only as a phrase—is the question of what is fundamental for us, and what a god relation would be to these fundamental things; what kind of connection we have to the things that matter most to us, both consciously and unconsciously.”

Freud, in Phillip’s view, believes that through psychoanalysis we may be able to articulate, or reach a better understanding of the things that are fundamental to us. But, we should also realize that what is fundamental to us, will not necessarily be conducive to harmony within ourselves, or with others.

The clichéd truism—that only what makes our lives worth living is worth dying for—leaves us with little solace. He ends on an even more depressing note, saying that what is the point in having respect for people who do not respect our respect for them, and that if fundamentalists truly prefer a world where the persuaded, or the enemy are not part of the solution, then “we have a very serious problem.” Such a fatalistic view is perhaps warranted by someone of Phillips age and experience, but I reject it, wholeheartedly.

Is Fundamentalism at the Core of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict? (Yael’s rant)

Since he brought up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a few times in his book, I feel a slight duty to respond, very briefly, with my own insights. I could spend pages describing the real and true grievances both sides harbor against the other, and why both are justified, in moral terms, in continuing to view the conflict as a zero-sum game. But, Phillip’s use of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an example of fundamentalism is deeply flawed, and leaves out a large motivator of human interactions—one that does not fit the secular/religious paradigm, and belongs to evolutionary psychology.

I would argue that labels are very important here. We run into problems when we talk about fundamentalists; since the concept is foreign to many liberals, they imbue these labels with a meaning that may not be relevant, or honest to the real experiences of millions. As we see with Islamic fundamentalism, our knowledge is cursory, as Islam has been branded something in the 21st century that is far from how the majority of Muslims view themselves.

Regarding Phillip’s question of how to justify to a Palestinian that Israeli’s are well intentioned, obviously trust is a crucial aspect in conflict resolution, but is convincing Palestinians that Israelis are well intentioned really going to bring the two sides any closer, when, in my view, the underlying tension of the conflict is one of conflicting narratives of each group’s collective histories.

“People will become more motivated to put their histories of blood behind them and try to forgive their former enemies when the benefits of cooperation are undeniably superior to the unforgiving, zero-sum status quo”, social psychologist Michael McCullough writes.

He goes further, saying that,

“when we design societies so that people’s right’s are protected, so that they experience justice, and so that they have incentives for cooperating with their former enemies, then forgiveness arises as a natural consequence of how our minds evolved to operate.”(Michael E. McCullough, Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct, p. 192.)

Obviously, the circumstances for such a positive-sum solutions are not ripe in the current geo-political reality of the Middle East. But, I have no shame stating clearly that I truly believe that the enmity that exists, and has existed for generations between the two sides, is not a product of any primordial hatred, and is rather a product of history and fate. Both sides, for a variety of reasons, have done a poor job in coming up with creative solutions to reconcile their differences, and to avoid the tragic confrontations that continue to plague both sides.

If we had a leaders who were willing to publicly acknowledge that the land of Israel, or historic Palestine, is a land that belongs to two peoples, and these peoples need to find a way to live together and work towards a common future, then perhaps we would not find ourselves in a world of fundamentalists, a world where to be an optimist is to be a traitor.

On Balance: Adam Phillips, Part I

For Adam Phillips, who has authored close to two-dozen, books, there is no such thing as too many words, contradictions, or questions left unanswered. He has managed to fit more insights, and dense, dichotomous, mind-bending maxims into these 300 pages than I can possibly review in one piece.

When I was researching his biography, I came across an interview he gave to the Paris Review (if you’ve never perused their writer’s interview section, I highly recommend it). It brought me back to Aliza’s introduction. She had this incredible idea that when engrossed in a good book, the characters of the story, or certain feelings evoked through the text, stay with us, and we carry them with us throughout the day. They lurk in the recesses of our mind, we even compare our actions to these fictional characters, thinking what they might do if they were in our situation.

“but what is clear is that there are powerful unconscious evocative effects in reading books that one loves. There’s something about these books that we want to go on thinking about, that matters to us. They’re not just fetishes that we use to fill gaps. They are like recurring dreams we can’t help thinking about.” – Adam Phillips, The Paris Review, The Art of Non-Fiction No. 7bomb-76-phillips

Phillips, a British psychoanalyst, born to Jewish Polish émigrés, is a reader’s writer, meaning that he is not only a prolific writer, but more impressively, a prolific reader. As a psychologist, he follows closely in Freud’s footsteps; his focus on sex, transgression, and the child-parent relationship follows the classic framework. Yet, his views are refreshing, and he doesn’t hesitate to criticize Freud, or offer new lenses from which to question the Freudian framework.

The book is split up into short essays, most of which were given as talks, or previously published in the Guardian. This makes for an incoherent, at times, painful read.

For a book on balance, Phillips begins with an expose on the antonymous condition, that of excess. He makes the case for why looking at our relationship to excess is perhaps a more interesting, and more useful intellectual activity to understand balance, than by some moral sententious self-help guide.

So how can excess be useful to us? Some questions he asks, and leaves uncomfortably open, include: Perhaps only through giving into our desires and addictions can we learn how to think more realistically about them?

Maybe the duty of being young is to be excessive, break the rules, and push our boundaries, in order to understand what they are made of. This is how do we learn when enough is enough. (I quite like that interpretation, perhaps because it assuages my guilt for having taken such an excessive and over-determined life path).

A couple of insights he brings us in the first essay include that it seems impossible to have a discussion about excess without becoming excessive ourselves—in our reaction, in our language, in our excessive interest. This is a good example of how we treat celebrities: does their excessively lavish lifestyle allow us to take an excessive interest in their romantic and social lives?

Second, he thinks that one’s reactions to other’s excesses holds the key to revealing our inner conflicts: say, for example, we are greatly repulsed by drug addicts—this stems not from a fear of our own potential drug addiction, but rather, of other fears elicited by our own overwhelming dependence, or need for love and attachment. We hope to have the freedom to feel this need, without endangering our lives. Yet, excess may be a good thing in life, if we learn to manage the fears associated with it. Excess has the power to bring us to a place where we can think more deeply, and all of life’s most radically transformative experiences (falling in love, conversions, or feeling of injustices) are marked by certain necessary excess.

“Nothing makes us more excessive than excess; nothing makes us more disapproving, disgusted, punitive—not to mention fascinated, exhilarated and amazed—than other people’s extravagant appetite for food, or alcohol or money or drugs, or violence; nothing makes us more frightened, more furious, more despairing than other people’s extreme commitment to political ideals or religious beliefs.” (Phillips, p.6)

He leaves us with an insightful, reflexive quote worthy of Jacques Lacan, who says that “One is never, in any way whatever, overwhelmed by another person’s excesses, one is only and always overwhelmed because their excesses happen to coincide with your own.”




Preface // Yaël Talks

Man is confronted with the frightening conflict of being a prisoner of nature, yet being free in his thoughts; being part of nature, and yet to be as it were a freak of nature; being neither here nor there. Human self-awareness has made man a stranger in the world, separate, lonely, and frightened. He is forced to overcome this horror [….] to find new forms of relating himself to the world to enable him to feel at home.” -Ehrich Fromm

Without taking too much time to preface, please offer me the delight of providing a short introduction.

I can be quite the hypocritical Luddite,—believing that life must have been better before the advent of the internet and digital communication, because effort, and intention,somehow imbue everything with a greater, intrinsic meaning. But, if the Luddite is one who shuns new technology, than this title surely doesn’t apply to me—I am writing a freaking blog. (Not that blogging is considered a new technology nowadays), but you get the point.

On effort and intention. This blog is my attempt to bridge the gap between the daily choices that define my cultural and technological existence—an existence of superficial and perfunctory choices, and my soul, that has higher aspirations, and yearns for transcendence.

Rolling eyes, okay Yaël, take it easy, how about intellectual stimulation and deeper social interactions;that’s a worthy and achievable goal, and not too lofty.

There’s a scene from Chaim Potok’s, The Chosen, that lingers in the back of my mind: when Danny runs away to the library, to read in secret. What kind of danger is involved in allowing a child the freedom to roam a library? Obviously, in this case, Danny’s interests in psychology pose a direct threat to his family’s Hasidic traditions. Do we realize how what we read, watch, or listen to influence our ways of thinking, or seeing the world? Is that even possible nowadays, to be scrupulous about what kind of information we are exposed to, when we are accosted by such an endless stream?

Taking a further step back, I think about why we read, and why we write. And perhaps the 21st century, our age of digital excess,  has altered or influenced how we relate and engage in these two processes?

Why do I write? I write to find myself. Why do I read? To escape myself.

This dialectic is a fundamental part of my existence–this game of hide-and-seek alleviates some of the pressures of the mundane. It is a binary that also works in reverse: Fiction writers do a good job of escaping their lives through the creation of alter-egos, through characters that are not constrained by the limits of the “real” world; and I read fiction and non-fiction, to learn something about the human condition, and how they cope, or view the particulars of their life circumstances.

But day in and day out, I feel like both my writing and my reading are not wholly fulfilling these needs.

My daily writing consists of requisite text messages to my mother, and stiff, prosaic emails to potential employers or colleagues. I am not finding myself, rather, forcing my language into pre-fabricated sentences of social convention, or letting auto-predict dictate what I will type next.

And my reading, what do I read these days? I can waste hours on twitter; wading through an endless stream of simultaneously amusing and depressing guffaws politicians committed in the past twenty-four hours, or statistics, news flashes, or events happening all around the globe. I read to feel connected to this world, and yes, it is a miracle that from my desk in Washington D.C. I am able to keep up with what’s going on millions of miles away in a Kurdish village north of Mosul.

So maybe I want a bit more, back to the idea of transcendence—where is the escape—or the self-discovery?

I repeat, I am not a luddite: thanks to technology, I can collaborate with one of my best friends who is over 5,000 miles away.

This blog is a place where I will attempt to escape the increasingly depressing news cycle, and make sense of ideas that I am exposed to, thanks to the Newton Public Library (shout out to my sister, who dutifully pays the plethora of fines for my overdue books) and the bountiful second-hand book stores of Tel Aviv, Paris, D.C. and Boston, that I have the luxury to peruse on a regular basis.

If this blog can bring you some inspiration, or comfort, or knowledge, or enjoyment, then I will feel I’ve done something truly worthy with (a few) of the hours I labor behind this computer screen.

I mentioned that we want to hear from you, and I really do. Did you read a book you think I’d like? Do you have ideas for how to make this place more exciting? Please share– My email is