Thursday, March 19, 2015

No Spoilers

Epic poems aren’t suspenseful. Even his horses knew what was in store for Achilles. The dominant affect is foreboding, not surprise. In the Mahabharata, the leader of the Kauravas and his hapless father are endlessly warned of the inevitable consequences of making unjust war on the Pandavas. The virtuous cousins are undeniably in the right, are led by five redoubtable warriors including the invincible Arjuna, and have the support of Krishna, who is acknowledged by all to be the incarnation of the supreme God of the universe. You’d think that it would be pretty clear that the odds are not favorable and that the outcome, even for the victors, will be the grandest of disasters. The Greeks spoke of “an Iliad of woes;” but the Mahabharata, which is twenty times longer than the Iliad, also has twenty times the misery. As the poet describes them, the weapons of the combatants sound like nuclear weapons; and the stricken field at the end of the war is like the aftermath of Hiroshima, right down to the black rain. Only one heir survives from either set of cousins; and the whole caste of the kshatryas is devastated, just as the Gods had purposed when they fated the war. The age of Kali begins. All of it was foreseeable and indeed foreseen and yet nothing could divert the dark will of Duryodhana or motivate his father to insist that he change course.

I was just finishing up reading Carole Staymurti’s modern retelling of the Mahabharata when I heard the Israeli election results. It struck me how the shortsightedness of the leader of the Israelis rhymed with the unwisdom of the leader of the Kauravas or at least fit into the meter of the epic, which sounds a little like Hiawatha— Duryodhana, Netanyahu. Of course I don’t know whether the current Israeli policy really will lead to the plains of Megiddo as Duryodhana’s stubbornness led to Kuruksetre. What I don’t get is just how peace or even the long-term existence of Israel is possible in the absence of any legal standing for the Palestinians in an increasingly hostile world. I certainly don’t see how we help matters if the U.S. insists on playing the part of the literally blind king who facilitated his son’s moral blindness until it was too late. Netanyahu is supposedly walking back the statements he made just before the election, but surely nobody believes him. After all, what was novel in his earlier remarks was simply that they were uttered in public. Paying lip service to a two-state solution, really to any solution, while proceeding with the de facto annexation of the West Bank has been part of the Israeli arcana of state for decades. No other assumption fits with Israel’s behavior. Maybe somebody in Tel Aviv has a strategy that goes beyond the next election, but they are certainly keeping that plan secret. In lieu of wisdom, defiance and amor fati. Heroic intransigence. 

As far as our part in this grim epic is concerned, I don’t know if Obama has ever heard of Dhritarashtra but it matters if, after a couple of weeks of ritualized disapproval, he goes back to the by now habitual role of enabler played by American presidents for their own short-term political ends.