[Hey Sullivanites! Please if this is worthwhile have a look at the other stuff on the site, all of which glitters like diamonds, every single post, no exceptions, uh huh.]
Via Andrew Sullivan comes this long attack on Kushner and the politics of Spielberg's Munich. [While we're here I'd like to recommend a comment by the same author on Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance in Capote. I haven't seen the film but that post shows a sharper eye for art than his writing on Kushner, which confuses textual criticism with bile. No matter. Update: Shazam! Turns out he wrote a more considered post on Homebody/Kabul, which reacts less pissily to Kushner than the silly piece on Munich.] The piece about Munich ends like this:
Munich isn't a serious exploration of terrorism. It's a blueprint for national suicide.
I think that's a misreading of the film, as I said in my previous post on Munich. To my eyes, the author is asking the film to be something it's not (pardon the self-quote):
The film isn't an interrogation of Arab nationalism [...] the subject matter of Munich is a step beyond Spielberg's other work in complexity, because there's no 'evil' in Munich, or rather because the concept of 'evil' isn't used to answer any questions, only to raise them: the members of Black September are shown in their full pompous banality as the film goes on, and the Israelis' nationalism doesn't survive long in the film's critical gaze, but both the Arabs and Israelis are presented as understandable and perhaps even forgivable. Perhaps not.
To elaborate: Kushner isn't interested in making just plain agitprop; if he were he'd be disposable and I'd be blogging about A Hard Day's Night instead. Rather, he's a painter working with a canvas much larger than his merely ideological critics are willing to grant. I grant him this: I think he's a serious and poetic enough thinker and writer to be asking, what is the nature of a world, and the nature of a race (human in this case), in which Black September is possible? In which Hamas wins parliamentary elections? In which the Israeli government can justify assassination squads (and the American government can undermine them)? In which a gay man dying of AIDS can justify attacks on other gay men in the name of a political party from which he is viciously excluded? In which faith in God seems misplaced? I'm only interested in Tony Kushner's politics inasmuch as they interfere with the moral seriousness of his art, and by that standard I think he's doing fine. Not just fine: he makes moral art that struggles with the tendency to moralize and for the most part masters itself. In his art he escapes the perils of one-note political advocacy that threaten participants in today's shrill national political conversation.
I saw Kushner's We Who Guard the Mystery... at the ART a couple years ago; it was fascinating, irritating, provocative, a strangely hopeful piece of art that's essentially a monologue by Laura Bush, reading to Iraqi children in Heaven, with interruptions by a friendly Angel. Here's Laura Bush explaining to the children why they had to die before American bombs:
LAURA BUSH: (Softly, trying hard to explain:) Because without sanctions there'd be no stopping him. And perhaps there'll be a war and many, many more Iraqi children will die, and oh, honey, no one wants that, no one wanted you dead! Oh God no, I mean God no, what sort of animal would want that? No, it's a terrible sin and I'm sure we'll all have to pay for it, me and Bushie and--I call him Bushie, my husband, I'm not supposed to do that in public, I promised I wouldn't but then he went and made that joke the other day that I wasn't out on the campaign trail for the midterm elections because I had to stay in Crawford and sweep the porch after it rained, and you know children I keep a very, very neat house and yes I do sweep the porch but he makes me sound sometimes like a...a frump! And anyway Bushie is a funny name, huh, a funny name for a President, President Bushie? Without sanctions and war, Saddam will go on till he has the power to do something unspeakable to another country, to the US or, or, well any other country, it could be anywhere. He gassed the Kurds! So he must be stopped and you, you were caught in crossfire and that is...
There's just no word for what it is.
And we'll pay for your deaths one way or another. He just hates it when I say that, my husband, it's not in his nature to think that way, but I believe it, sweetie, I do. I think there is guilt when a child dies even if the death was in a just cause, and one person's guilt is guilt for everyone--that's in this beautiful book (she holds out the book) -- and we suffer that guilt, me and Bushie and Poppy and Bar and the UN Security Council; and you suffered your death, all sorts of Iraqi people die for the sins of your leader, for his evil, and you know some people say serves 'em right, but that's just vengeful and, and indiscriminate and those people are wrong. They're wrong is all, and (to the angel:) how many children have died in Iraq, you know, what with the sanctions and the bombing and all?
ANGEL: The bombings of course have never stopped; they have been continuous since the Gulf War ended. It never ended.
LAURA BUSH: How many children, do you know?
ANGEL: Hundreds of children. Thousands of children. 150,000 children. 400,000 children. Who's counting? No one is counting. A lot. From diseases related to the sanctions and the power outages and the depleted uranium dust shed from the casings of American missiles? Perhaps related? Probably related? Nearly 600,000 children have died. Many, many children have died.
LAURA BUSH: Oh gosh. And on the bright side, all those dead children and yet look, you have maintained such a low student-teacher ratio. Three-to-one!
After the performance there was a panel discussion about political art; it was intriguing but mostly pissed me off, as the audience mainly ground its axes, most of which were quite similar. But the play itself was riveting. The bit about 'Bushie' - Laura later calls the President 'The Chimp' - struck me as dumb, pandering comedy. But it served a purpose: it breaks up the tension of the piece, much of which comes (for me) from the fact that you're sitting there waiting for Laura Bush to say something deeply stupid. And she never quite does. The character is not uncharitably drawn; she never attains the high-verbal eloquence of, say, the drag-queen nurse in Angels in America, but Kushner writes (ahem) fairy tales, even dark ones, and so eloquence is found in odd places. What Kushner's First Lady does attain is moral seriousness. I mean: she's married to George W. Bush. In real life there is something fundamentally weird about the woman; in silence she's complicit in what he does, and what he does is monstrous, but in Kushner's world she's given a chance to speak, and even if what she says is wish-fulfillment ('I know we're wrong' in some ways), what she also says is: but we serve right. And Kushner wants the audience to know that forgiveness is not necessarily to be expected by the actors in the Iraq War drama, even as it slides between comedy and tragedy.
This is how that play ends:
LAURA BUSH: Great! Thank you children. You are beautiful. I should start to read. May I kiss them first?
(The angel considers the request.)
ANGEL: Go ahead.
LAURA BUSH: Thank you.
At the end of "The Grand Inquisitor" Christ kisses the Inquisitor on the lips. And the Inquisitor lets him go. Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky lets this pass without comment. We call this ambiguity. Is it a Judas kiss? Is it a kiss of approval? Forgiveness? Sexual lust? After we are done, perhaps you will tell me, in this wonderful bird music of yours.
(She gets up, goes to the children, kisses each child on the forehead, returns to the armchair, picks up her book. She looks down, opens it, then looks up.)
LAURA BUSH: Thank you, children. The kiss glows in my heart. That's from The Brothers Karamazov.
"In His infinite mercy He came once more among men in that human shape in which He walked among men for three years fifteen centuries ago."
In fact, now that I think of it, it's something Ivan says about the Grand Inquisitor.
(She finds the page:) Here it is. "The kiss glowed in his heart. But the old man adhered to his ideas."
(She closes the book. She looks troubled. She smiles at the children. They smile at her.)
LAURA BUSH: The kiss glows in my heart.
I adhere to my ideas.
End of Scene.
That's a marvelous ending, marking as it does a shift from an editorial description of bullheadedness by Dostoyevsky to a declaration by Laura Bush: of having chosen. She is a full-blown moral actor, not merely an ideologue, and the author of the anti-Munich post (which by the way is well-written and occasionally serious, if seriously wrong to my eyes) at issue would do well to notice that she characterizes Saddam Hussein in the piece as 'evil' and no one questions her; rather she takes up this notion of evil in its many forms on her own, and arrives at a settled place. To me she means it: she loves the children and wishes they could have lived, but she's in Heaven, near God, and in God's name she's committed to a moral path.
Besides, We Who Guard the Mystery is a slight thing, not too long, and as much as it's about the Iraq War it's about political art and its function - it serves as a mission statement for Tony Kushner's work as a playwright (and screenwriter). He aspires to Dostoyevskyan tension and ambiguity, but there's also something beyond ambiguity that he seeks. All good art seeks it. Lost, the television show, is merely ambiguous: you don't know what things mean, and then either things mean one thing or you continue not to know. It's complicated but not complex. It's merely ambiguous. Kushner sets characters up not to be shown up or undercut, but to actually live and talk with one another. He's sympathetic to his enemies. That his 'enemies' in Munich are purportedly the Israeli assassins is not clear from the film; he looks too warmly on Jewish identity and history to simply dismiss it. And we're meant to see the Arab terrorists in Munich as savage, but not as savages. In that one letter resides a world of...not ambiguity. Complexity. Room to think. (Think too of the scene where Louis prays over Roy Cohn's body in Angels; Cohn is the devil, the polestar of human evil, but Louis finds humanity in himself through Cohn's death. And he seeks the humanity in Cohn himself. It'd be an overpowering scene even if Ethel Rosenberg didn't join in halfway through.)
The attack on Kushner quoted above - which I now feel silly linking to, because on further reading it's not particularly insightful beyond a couple of small legitimate grievances - contains the following paragraphs:
Kushner's conflation of Israel and America shows the way in which Munich is meant to hit home, at least for Western audiences. If terrorists murder Israeli or American children, the act may be considered "deplorable," but it also constitutes an "expression" of legitimate grievance. After all, both Israel and America are imperial powers, and both conduct military strikes against refugee camps and civilian enclaves (the places, it should be noted, where terrorists hide in the hope of maximizing casualties). Kushner contends that Israel should be ashamed for bringing Palestinians to the point where they have to commit violent acts to be heard; the same goes for America, which keeps electing "blood-spattered plutocrats" like George W. Bush to the frustration of the rest of the world. Yet when Israelis or Americans try to defend themselves against Palestinian terrorism, the defense is worse than the initial act, because it lacks even the expressive purpose.
Small wonder, then, that the protagonist of Munich eventually abandons his home in Israel to live in a rather shabby Brooklyn apartment. Kushner leaves his Avner with no way to justify continued existence in Israel: As the "good Jew," Avner must leave. (Still, the film's final shot of the World Trade Center indicates that his move is strictly lateral: America has a day of reckoning in store, too.) In Brooklyn, Avner's near-psychotic fixation on the Munich Olympics leads to a climactic scene reminiscent of a bad Monty Python sketch. As he has sex with his wife, director Spielberg cuts to flashbacks of the Black September terrorists in Munich. Thanks to the magic of intercutting, Avner achieves orgasm at the precise moment when the Israeli athletes are slaughtered. (Did I mention that Tony Kushner is not known for subtlety?)
I still say that sex scene is egregious, but the above-quoted passage is an idiotic political reading of the kind one would expect to find in, say, a first-year literature grad student's reading of Conrad. The end of the first paragraph approaches seriousness, but is wrong. Kushner deplores violence. His characters kill one another sometimes and they carry the weight of that sin with them; we're not supposed to cheer for the Arab terrorists in Munich, goddamnit, we're supposed to move beyond 'evil' as an answer to the question 'Why do they hate?' What Avner and his colleagues do is perhaps justified - I came away from the film thinking that their manner of exacting revenge was not unjust, but that 'justice' was almost unrecognizable in the moral matrix of the Israel/Palestine conflict - but if so, if we're willing to grant the right of violent assertion of freedom, then on what grounds (I think the movie asks) are we condemning the Palestinians? Same need (a home). Same fate (death by strangers). Same stupid useless plot of land. They're all fucking crazy the way they carry on about their 'homeland'. Right? (It's not just for laughs that I say this.) That doesn't mean we shouldn't deal seriously with the question of who gets it. And 'it must be Israel because it's in the Bible' is not an acceptable answer either, predicated as it is on the same naïve, John Wayne morality that the Arabs in Munich share (but the Israelis do not - or did you miss that part?). Kushner knows how dangerous is it when 'home' invisibly becomes 'homeland'.
Avner's 'near-psychotic fixation on the Munich Olympics' mirrors, it should probably be noted, the near-psychotic fixation on '9/11' shared by so many Americans (even to the point of fetishizing the phrase '9/11' itself, a habit that swerves between irritating and frightening - or maybe I just have a case of 'totem fatigue'). Kushner's Israeli assassins don't get the level of interiority granted to the characters in Angels in America (how could they, in less than half the time?), but they are granted the vision that Kushner himself shares, namely the ability to see 'righteousness' as something complicated and contingent, and to believe that 'home' is something far more precious than 'nations'. Here's part of Kushner's Afterword to Homebody/Kabul, which I haven't yet read:
I am an American and a Jew, and as such I believe I have a direct responsibility for the behavior of Americans and Jews. I deplore suicide bombings and the enemies of the peace process in the Palestinian territories and in the Arab and Muslim world. I deplore equally the brutal and illegal tactics of the IDF in the occupied territories, I deplore the occupation, the forced evacuations, the settlements, the refugee camps, the whole shameful history of the dreadful suffering of the Palestinian people; Jews, of all people, with our history of suffering, should refuse to treat our fellow human beings like that. I deplore the enemies of peace in Israel and in America as well, and to them, inasmuch as they are far more mighty, and already have what the Palestinians seek, statehood, I apportion a greater share of the responsibility for making peace to them.
The writer at 'My Stupid Dog' sees this as reflexive America-hatred and Jew-hatred and Israel-hatred, and condescension toward Palestinians. I disagree. (And maybe this is the time to say Kushner and I don't stand at the same place on the political map.) There is death, and suffering, almost too great to be comprehended; the dead are uncountable. And those who perpetuate this suffering and this killing are deplorable, and are enemies of God's peace: Yes. But making things right involves more than mere temporary measures, reflexive and unreflective acts: building a wall, dropping a bomb, flattening a skyscraper. Those who think in those terms are blinkered, are morally wounded. Perhaps even crippled. Tony Kushner is not one of them.
We might strive to be able to say, he is one of us, and may our tribe grow to outnumber the stars. Amen.