Boring Subversion

It’s out! The new issue of Ma’ayan, Israel’s most notorious literary magazine, lives down to its reputation. Here’s Dada without the humor, subway graffiti without the color. The prose reads like what you’d get if you transplanted George W. Bush’s brain into the body of Israeli anti-Zionist historian Ilan Pappe (I’m thinking of Bush’s wooden English style and cluelessness chimeraed with Pappe’s hysterical grandstanding and Hebrew kindergarten invective). Most of the poetry was, I suspect, written on Jerusalem’s infamous 15 (recently demoted to 13) bus, which wends its way irrationally and endlessly through streets that no one particularly wants to visit.

As best as I can make out through the thicket of badly-constructed sentences in this issue, I actually share a point of view with the editors and writers. We agree, it seems, that literature ought to be subversive. That is, the best writing is that which forces readers to reexamine their cherished beliefs, which impels citizens to think about precisely those things they would rather forget, which demonstrates that we can and must think about our lives in different and uncomfortable ways.

But literary subversion can’t just be subversion. If the aim of the writer is simply to shock and attack, without any attention to the craft and without any profound human feeling (I mean empathy, I mean humor), then subversion gets boring. And boring subversion reinforces rather than challenges convention. Reading Ma’ayan is like living through the Reign of Terror—maybe at first you can’t help but admire that Jacobin daring and determination, but after you’ve seen a few heads roll you realize that you’d really rather go to the theater.

It begins with the cover, which is a pastel portrait of former Arab Member of the Knesset and current Palestinian expatriate Azmi Bishara. Why Azmi Bishara? Presumably because the sight of his face sends most Israelis into apoplectic fits. I can’t think of any other reason.

The essays at the front of the magazine include a critique of Amos Oz’s new novel, Rhymes of Life and Death, by Noam Yoran. I haven’t read the novel yet but Yoran seems to be totally impervious to the ironies that are so much part of Oz’s texture; and he makes the ridiculous error of assuming that the world as Oz’s protagonist sees it is the world as Oz sees it. He finds the sexual and social stereotypes in the novel reprehensible—the portrayal of Mizrachi (Sephardi) Jews as low-skilled workers and sexual prey, of Ashkenazim as intellectual and powerful. Indeed they are. But as best as I can make out, this is Oz portraying how his protagonist sees the world, not Oz laying out his vision of the world as it ought to be.

Another essay, by Roy Arad, one of Ma’ayan’s founders and editors, attempts to deconstruct an article by literary critic Ariel Hirschfeld on the poetry of Arik Einstein’s song lyrics. I’m not sure if I really comprehended Arad’s sentences, as full of splinters and jetsam as they are, but he seems to contradict himself by first criticizing Hirschfeld for thinking that he has to justify reading song lyrics as poetry, and then turning around and explaining why song lyrics can’t really be read as poetry.

Which brings us to the poetry in this issue. Most of it is very political, which is fine with me, even if the politics are far beyond anything I consider reasonable and intelligent. But if you are going to write polemical poetry, do it with some style. We get lines like “I can imagine a hypothetical situation in which I engage in (unconsummated) sexual intercourse with Raful” (Raful being the army chief of staff who got us into the first Lebanon war); and “I evaded serving in the IDF, so I’m a non-Israeli living in Israel”; and “Behind the Peres Center for Peace, the sun” (in this case, that’s the whole poem). Somehow I am not drawn into much of this verse.

The great thing about freedom of the press is that anyone can, with a minimal investment of time, money, and effort, write whatever they want and hope people will read it. Ma’ayan is one of a slew of new literary magazines that have popped up in Israel in recent years. It’s wonderful that we live in a country where some young people think literature is important enough to go to the trouble of putting together a magazine, and it’s great that I can go to my local DVD library and pick up a copy of a magazine with a pastel portrait of Azmi Bishara on the cover without giving it a second thought. (It makes me fantasize about Bishara going into a DVD library in Damascus and picking up a literary magazine with a pastel portrait of Raful on the cover.) And, hey, Ma’ayan comes out in part thanks to funding from Israel’s national lottery. Now that’s subversion.

Perhaps, with time, Ma’ayan’s editors and writers will mellow a bit. Maybe they’ll realize that they don’t need to rant and rave for people to pay attention. Maybe they’ll start putting a little more time into the craft of writing. Maybe they’ll learn to laugh at themselves. They might, then, be able to put out a decent literary magazine.