What if instead of advertisements, digital billboards in Manhattan showed pictures of the people who most recently left the city for good, never to return? An endless scroll of strangers who gave up on the dream of New York City? What then?
What if instead of CATS or Lion King running forever on Broadway, it was that one punk show you went to where you felt so very alive, ever so briefly?
What if we had a queen instead of a mayor? Exact same city government, we just call the office the Queen of New York.
What if we insisted that anyone entering the city had to swear , against all reason and measurements, that the Empire State building is the tallest building in the world?
What if, as a city, we took a vow of silence that we only broke on the Subway?
What if the libraries of Manhattan organized all the books by color, so that Red was up in Inwood and Dark Purple in the Financial District? What if Brooklyn followed suit?
What if there was a distinct melody for each neighborhood? What would Redhook’s be?
What if we stopped regulating buildings except that there must be a depiction of the zodiac prominently featured somewhere public facing?
What if NYPD had to tell you what they dreamed the night before before they were allowed to search, question or arrest you?
What if the roaches were all those big hissing motherfuckers, you know the ones?
What if FDNY trucks were a vivid and slightly repulsive chartreuse?
What if we designed the whole city to match that statue Dali built for St. John the Divine?
What if only the Bronx Zoo animals were allowed to vote?
What if we still had wards and Times Square’s western edge was still called Verdant Lane and what if the subway was pneumatic like Alfred Beach planned and what if I had never left?
What if New York City cared about Beauty half as much, no, a third, as it cared about money? What then?
What is a Jew’s role in a revolution? I can only answer in Jewish fashion, with more questions. Specifically I have to work in the vein of the Talmud, and bypass certain questions that appear to me inane or uninteresting: The lexicographer or taxonomist’s questions, what is a Jew, what is a revolution; The historian’s questions, how have Jews behaved in past revolutions, how are Jews positioned before and after revolutionary events. Even the revolutionary’s questions, how best can Jews serve the revolution, what is this revolution for, I would like to pass over. Instead, I would like to ask the Jewish poet’s questions. What is the revolutionary value of Jewish blood? What color is the sky in the eye of a Jew who is surviving the birth pangs of Messiah? How do flames spread from Shabbos candles to the world? How do Jews live, and love, and die in revolutionary times? These are the questions that I believe Isaac Babel has answers to.
There is an ache that comes from reading Isaac Babel that I have found in no other writer. It begins in my chest, dull and cold, yet by the time it spreads to behind my eyes, it is quite the burning sensation. It is the opposite of the warmth I feel reading Moby Dick, where everything is the excitement and possibility of the boundless horizon, even as the narrative draws to an inevitable conclusion. Babel has no excitement, no possibility. There is only life, perfectly observed, thrilling and terrible, and life’s suffering. There is only the ache.
I am thinking of Babel tonight because I’ve just seen Rajiv Joseph’s taut and entertaining drama, Describe The Night, in which an imagined love triangle between Isaac Babel, an NKVD officer and the officer’s wife winds its way through history, eventually conspiring to torture a fictionalized Putin. Superbly acted by the Wilma Theater’s HotHouse company, the play is emotionally complex, erotic and deeply funny. My only complaint is not the fault of the actors or the play. It is a risk that Rajiv Joseph invited, and failed to avoid. He has, in writing a play about Isaac Babel, invited comparison. And he comes up short of Babel. The play, in its cyclical conspiracy thinking, is too neat, too wrapped up to be a Babel story. Not a great sin, to fall short of the master. But noticeable.
I’ve also thinking of Babel because I’ve been writing about revolution again. A sympathetic friend wrote me to ask how I respond to accusations of Utopian thinking. I gave it some thought, and discussed how I didn’t know all the answers of how to create the world I want to see, or even what that world might look like. I posted my answer publicly and a less sympathetic friend accused me of Utopian thinking. Which goes to show something, but I know not what.
Adrift in the fires and madness of revolutionary Russia, Babel’s Jews struggle to live in a world turned upside down. Many of them don’t. They die. In the Odessa Stories, the gangster Froim Grach looms large, a mastermind of crime. But once his lawlessness becomes the law, and the former enemies of the state are now in power, Grach cannot cope. When the Red Army discipline his men, he goes to the local office of the Cheka, the early revolutionary police, and tries to strike a deal. Only one man, Borovoi, has enough local knowledge to respect Grach. When Borovoi comes back from a minor errand, he finds the giant of his youth has been taken out back and shot. The following is the conversation between Borovoi and Simen, his superior.
“I know you’re angry at me, Sasha,” Simen said to him, “but you mustn’t forget that now we are the power, the state power! You must remember that!” “I’m not angry at you,” Borovoi said, turning away. “It’s just that you’re not an Odessan, you can’t understand what the old man represented.” They sat side by side, the chairman of the Cheka, who had just turned twenty-three, and his subordinate. Simen was holding Borovoi’s hand in his and pressing it. “Tell me one thing as a Chekist, as a revolutionary,” Simen said to him after a moment of silence. “What use would that man have been to the society we are building?” “I don’t know,” Borovoi said, staring motionlessly in front of him. “I suppose no use at all.”
Similarly, in the Red Calvary stories, Babel writes of a glowering youth in the court of the Rabbi of Zhitomir, the Rabbi’s son. That is early in the war, when the campaign to bring the revolution to the Poles is going well. Babel, or perhaps his narrator, sees the glowering youth one more time, when the war has turned against the Red Army, and they are on the retreat. He and his comrades in their journalist car of the train retreating back to Russia reach out and grab the hands of the lone soldier who grabbed the Trotsky leaflets they are tossing away. It is Ilya Bratslavsky, the Zhitomir rabbi’s son, and he is dying. The narrator tells him that he knows him, but he wasn’t a communist then!
“I was in the Party back then,” the young man answered, scratching his chest and twisting in his fever. “But I couldn’t leave my mother behind.” “What about now, Ilya?” “My mother is just an episode of the Revolution,” he whispered, his voice becoming fainter. “Then my letter came up, the letter B, and the organization sent me off to the front. …” “So you ended up in Kovel?” “I ended up in Kovel!” he shouted in despair. “The damn kulaks opened the front. I took over a mixed regiment, but it was too late. I didn’t have enough artillery.” He died before we reached Kovno.
Is that the fate of the Jew in revolution? To be outpaced, outmoded, eaten like the rest of the Children? To die on the frontlines, to be cannon fodder?
I have to believe that we have more of a role to play than that. In another Red Calvary story, Babel’s narrator meets the Jew Gedali. They discuss the fate of the Jew in Poland, now that the Revolution is here. Gedali is cautiously optimistic, but he doesn’t like all the shooting. “Let’s say we say yes to the revolution, does that mean we’re supposed to say no to the Sabbath?” he asks. He begs the narrator and the Russians, bring good people to Zhitomir, and form the fourth international. This time, he says, make it the International of Good People.
This is the role of the Jew in the revolution as I see it, as I have carved it out for myself, as I hope you will join me. Demand better. Always demand more and better. Demand a real revolution, a real change, demand something new, such as Peace, Justice, and Happiness. Demand Moshiach, and be damn disappointed when he doesn’t show.
I thought, at a young age, that I knew what Disneyfication meant. A precocious reader, I early on learned the words “abridged” and “adapted for young readers” and decided I wanted none of it. I would take on the original text or nothing at all. My mother said, that was fine, I should just count how many words I didn’t understand per page, and if it was more than ten, I should try something easier. As it was, I didn’t get very far, and eventually sulked back to my children’s classics.
But I still held a certain literary snobbishness in my child’s heart, and I learned to despise the faithlessness of Disney to the original fairy tales. Happy endings! Even at 8 I was able to see that stories were, by rights, more complex and darker than what Disney offered me. So as a teenager when I heard the term Disneyfication applied to Times Square, I thought I knew what New York was in for. A happy face on everything, no more dark corners, clean streets for tourists. Hell, hadn’t they even built a literal Disney store? Yeah, that was Disneyfication, a sucker’s New York! In my deeply felt teenaged cynicism, I added, And wasn’t it a world of suckers?
It was years later, when childhood snobbishness and teenaged cynicism had given way to the sheer, gut-wrenching misery of young adulthood, that I learned what Disneyfication meant when applied to cities. To understand what is happening to New York, you must understand what Walt Disney achieved in his theme parks. Disney World and Disneyland are marvels of historical revisionism, children’s entertainment, ride design, intellectual property enforcement, and yes, urban planning. Never was a space so meticulously planned; from the sights and sounds on display, to the perfectly spaced garbage cans from the snack vendors, Disney attempted to predict every eventuality, every interpretation of his parks.
This is what is happening to New York. It’s not just a sanitation campaign, a crusade against crime, an increase in property values and rents, although in a way, it is motivated by all that while also using all those as tools. Rather, New York is being Disneyfied. It is being meticulously reworked to provide only certain experiences, only certain freedoms, for only certain people.
This is not just the ultimate logic of Giuliani and Bloomberg, the mayors of the tough on crime era. It is not even simply the logic of Walt Disney, a showman who decided to make appearances tangible. It is the logic of the settler colonial and white supremacist project of the United States. What is the difference between a law protecting a slave-owner’s rights and a rule making sure we all have fun here? What is an overseer with his whip but a security guard, genially beaming at you as you enter the ride? What is a slave plantation for the white planters but Disney World, where every need is met, the Happiest Place on Earth?
What is the difference between nostalgia and a real grief for a loss of a time or place? (We may find it necessary to collapse space and time here, because what is a place you miss if not a specific time at a place?) Nostalgia was originally an illness that affected French soldiers stationed in the colonial possessions of France, a sort of deep homesickness. In this sense, its affiliations are with the Powerful, longing for . . . what, exactly? A more innocent time, when they didn’t have to kill brown people? Let’s leave the Powerful to their nostalgia. A real grief for a time may look something more like the perennial Jewish longing for a destroyed Jerusalem, or the deep cultural memories indigenous peoples of America hold for their world before the arrival of the whites. A construction of Utopia, not in the distant future, but in the past. Where then to place our own personal longings for distant times, of childhood, of safety and joy? This is a feeling that we must own, alone and vulnerable, and know that it is the desire for Home. For Home is nothing more than an instance, a remote series of events in our personal mythologies. This is what Wolfe meant by, “You can’t go home again,” the very same wisdom as the expression, “You cannot step into the same river twice.”
There are two graves in the Happy Valley of Hong Kong. They belong to the Gueter brothers of Buda Pesht, who came to that land swallowing fire, in the act of the great pre-Houdini magician, Dean Harry Kellar. Houdini himself relates their deaths in the Miracle Mongers, his vast exposé on all those who would make magic seem magic, and not science, as Houdini himself believed. The Gueter Bros., David and Louis, performed under racist pseudonyms, in yellowface make-up, as Ling Look and Yamadeva, respectively. Ling Look was the more impressive of the two, having combined his appetites for swords and fire into a startling display of swallowing a flaming blade. But the brother’s loved each other equally, communicating in a trademark whistle. When Yamadeva died of a rupture on the boat from Shanghai to Hong Kong, it was this whistle that was eerily heard by all on the ship. As the whistle faded, Ling Look turned with misery to Harry Kellar, (who years later related the story to a dispassionate Houdini) and said his brother was calling to him. Sure enough, David Gueter died in Hong Kong and was buried next to his brother, Louis. Houdini records a strange coda to this ghost story. In London, two years after his death, Ling Look reappeared, swallowing swords and fire and caustics as gaily as he ever had. Kellar investigated, and told Houdini he found a third Gueter brother, carrying on the family legacy, in his deceased brother’s make up.
This explanation satisfies Houdini the rationalist, but did it disturb the soul of Houdini the Rabbi’s son? For surely Houdini knew of the Eternal Flame that burns, yet does not consume. Did he know that that Fire has its own priests, its own worship, that apes its own harmless flames? Does Ling Look not still live, whistling for his brother through scorched lips that have known the caress of swords?