Friday, September 28, 2012

King Silber is Dead

John Silber, the longtime president and then chancellor of Boston University, has died.

When I attended BU from 1992 to 1995, it was hard to find faculty or staff who had good things to say about Silber.  There was the feeling that Silber had done good work in the seventies steering BU away from the brink, but  now he had settled a pattern of intimidation, power consolidation, and abuse of his office.   

He was viewed as a niggling conservative, who brokered little compromise with opponents.  He commanded a large salary, even after his retirement, including a free house in Brookline for life.  He helped usher in that strange age of million dollar compensation packages for university presidents.

Silber vented an air of oppressiveness over BU.  His paternalistic arms hung over the campus.   In a bow to some Puritan impulse, undergrads were not allowed to have overnight visitors of the opposite sex .  He stopped a gay activity group from forming on campus.  He was socially and academically backward, preaching against such mainstream academic perspectives like cultural relativism, feminism, post-colonialism.   Other institutions had  moved far beyond these debates into the post-modern age, but Silber continued to preach an old line absolute value stance, and kept BU at a standstill. 

All in all, it was not a pretty picture.  This was a man with some deep, internal troubles.  And he took those problems, these unsolved issues of ego and control, and projected it out on the larger screen of university life.  It was a disgraceful and puny show to watch.

He may have done a great deal of good for Boston University at one time, but I believe in the end that the bad far outweighs the good.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Australian New Wave, after 30 years

Starting from the age of ten, I began to watch films on cable that piqued my interest.  There was something alarmingly real about them.  And even at that age, I could tell there was a profound difference between them and ET.   

The first was Breaker Morant (1980), a court room drama set in 1900 in South Africa during the Boer War.  Three Australian officers are arrested on various war crimes charges, most notably shooting prisoners and a missionary.  They are convicted by British officers and two of the three are executed.  I did not notice it at the time, but there is a strong element in the film that the Australians were not culpable in their crimes, even though, with one exception, they admitted to committing them.  They claimed they were following orders to execute Boer prisoners which the British High command then denied.   The film makes no bones about it: the Australians were used as scapegoats by the British to bring about a peace conference with the Boer command.

The film is a startling piece of work, taut, clean, moving about the contours of its narrative with no extraneous parts.   There is both the feeling of inevitability AND suspense which many good pieces of art convey at once.

The second was Gallipoli, directed by Peter Weir in 1981.  In Gallipoli, two young soldiers go to battle in the ANZACs, the combined Australian and New Zealand army core, against the Ottoman Turks during the First World War in 1915.  The campaign is a disaster, fought in rocky terrain which gives the defender the advantage.  The film has a similar theme as Breaker Morant:  the English use the Australians as machine gun fodder to protect British interests, and the famous Battle of the Nek, feature at the end, vividly illustrates this points.

Both films did a remarkable job in giving Australian film its own voice, by portraying two wars which gave rise to Australian nationalism.  Yet both broker in myth rather than historical evidence.  Even after a hundred years of searching, no orders to kill Boer prisoners has even been found, and repeated attempts to posthumously pardon Breaker Morant have failed.  To South African whites of Afrikaner ancestry, he is simply a war criminal.  In Gallipoli the impression is given that the fatal order that led to the Battle of the Nek is given by English officers.  In fact, the campaign was led by Australian officers.  The mistakes, and there were many, were mainly performed by ANZAC commanders.  It was an Australian blunder.

Breaker Morant and Gallipoli both provide a genuine Australian voice, but fail to confront the ugly truths behind the incidents they portray.  Complicity in the atrocities of war can seldom be laid on one side or the other.  Often, there is an active interplay between different elements.  These two New Wave films, now not so new, are extraordinary films, but less than perfect history.  They are more about national identity than the history they purport to convey.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

On the day before Yom Kippur

I tend to be lenient in my reviews of books like The Gift of the Kabbalah: Discovering the Secrets of Heaven, Renewing Your Life on Earth, since Tamar Frankiel is earnest in her presentation of the material, and wants to truly help people with her work.  And if it does not work for me, that doesn’t mean it will work for others.  

That said, this books is a standard “New Age” treatment of the Kabbalah.  Frankiel presents the material in a Jewish context, but not to an extreme. She is definitely aiming at a more general audience.  In a way, her use of the sefiroth as markers of psychological well-being is close to the use of the Kabbalah by certain Hasidic circles.  Rather than being overwhelming about ontological facts of the universe, they reveal psychological truths.

But toward the end, Frankiel veers far off track for me, directing us to astrological techniques for the growth of the soul.  Again, not for me, but fair enough: Kabbalah has often been involved in astrology; it is found a place in many variant systems, so Frankiel is well within her rights to present such material here.

My biggest problem with this book, and the Kabbalah in general, is its complexity.  I like to think of the mystical quest as conceptually easy to understand (the merging of the self with God) yet practically hard to accomplish.  This book, and others like it, present a complex map for this goal, and make it hard indeed to reach the second goal. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

And the Messiah is...

For anyone familiar with Rebbe Nachman and Bratslav Hasidism, Zvi Mark’s book The Scroll of Secrets: The Hidden Messianic Vision of R. Nachman of Breslav, does not contain too many surprises.   

Mark has gotten access to a secret scroll guarded by Bratslav Hasidism for two-hundred years, containing the prognostications of Rebbe Nachman’s regarding the coming of the Messiah.  Not surprisingly, since Bratslav Hasidism has always been accused of elevating their rebbe to messianic status, the messiah in the scroll closely resembles Rebbe Nachman and Bratslav teaching will be in the vanguard of the Messianic Age, bringing in a new world order.  But the beauty is in the details, and Mark does a excellent job showing the importance of the scroll in Bratslav self-conception.

Mark also deftly explains the complex issues of esoteric and exoteric knowledge, messianic thought and expectations, and the complex role of modern Bratslav Hasidim in explaining and propagating their cause.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Joke that Goes on For TOO Long

Bech at Bay is the last in the trilogy of novels about Henry Bech, John Updike’s Jewish alter-ego.  It lacks some of the prose sparkle of the last two Bech books, and as such, does not quite have the head of steam  necessary to fulfill even Updike’s modest goals.  One is to make us laugh, which he accomplishes sometimes but not nearly enough for our effort and the second is to make observations about art, life, and creativity, which he does in abundance, stretching the believability of the plot and the characters to the breaking point.

In the end, I have great ambivalence about the Beck books, and Updike generally.  What am I supposed to think of him?  There is something slight about these books, even when they are decked out as serious observations of literature and life.  Even the comedy is thin and a bit crude, lacking any essential punch.  And that is what I want in my fiction.  A punch. There are enough lulling, non-essential books and other forms of entertainment out there.   I want my fiction to change my world.  The Beck series does not come close to this at all.