Thursday, March 3, 2011

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

This will be actually be a post about authenticity in the Holy Land, an endeavor both utterly absurd and absolutely sincere, and best evoked, to my mind, by Noel Coward's memorable lyrics.  When he wrote the song in 1932, the Garden Tomb, whence the video above was taken, was only 45 years old.  In 1883, a British general by the name of Charles Gordon was sitting on the rooftop patio of a friend of his (at midday?) just inside the Damascus gate on the northwest side of Jerusalem. He began to notice that the rock formation across the way looked increasingly like a skull, conjuring up thoughts of Golgotha.  Fundraising and digging ensued, and a rock-cut tomb was found, a site was declared, and thousands of pilgrims, especially Protestants, come each year.  Never mind that the tomb type is from the First Temple period (800-700 B.C.E.), never mind that nothing else about it adds up - it looks right, it feels right, as one of my students said "I can appreciate it more" [than the Holy Sepulcher].  An affable Anglican leads you through the English-garden precision park, makes quips about how fussy archaeologists are, makes scientific certitude seem petty, and constructs a world of possibilities in which we are to wish fervently that the Garden Tomb is the real deal, even if there's less than no proof that it is. Why does this repel me so? Why am I so willing to give the Holy Sepulcher a pass, and come down hard on the Garden Tomb? Maybe I prefer fervor to complacency; maybe it's the way that authenticity is claimed (the crowded unthinking passion of the Holy Sepulcher, vs. the manicured calm of the Garden Tomb).

What makes a site authentic?  What persuades someone who can't possibly know (because no one can possibly know) that they are in the true presence of what they so desperately want to be in the true presence of? Are authenticity and truth the same thing?  Etymologically they're not, authenticity being closely tied to authority, and authorship - closer in meaning to original, originary, than truth or truthful. So shall we dispense with truth here, and just deal with authenticity? with that striving for some kind of genuine, original, unique experience that Israel, the Holy Land, seems to make us want? Yes, let's do that.  All I can say now looking back on it is that the students craved this authenticity - and were pretty much thwarted at every turn.  The student who had written about "walking in the dusty footsteps of Jesus" especially.  I think that authenticity is linked to origins, to a sense of the authoritative, the knowing.  But the phenomenon extended beyond religion - Israel wasn't Middle Eastern (read, exotic) enough; it wasn't "foreign" (direct quote) enough; it didn't "feel old."  I recall being helpless to those accusatory complaints, wanting so much to be able to promote the idea of multi-layered constructions of history - but that never sounding quite right.  I remember feeling a sympathy for their desire, because just about everything in their lives is mediated. But then, too, some of their expectations of authenticity are themselves derived from media, from film especially.  It gets complicated.

It now strikes me as odd that the sites I want to write about under this theme of authenticity are those that I have the fewest pictures of.  Our evening at the home of a Druze community has not a single photograph - the evening was spent seated on low couches, eating from an enormous communal plate and listening to a Druze talk to us about reincarnation, and the Knowledgeable and the Ignorant.  There was the sense of being in the presence of something genuine precisely because it was very foreign, very new - even as accommodations were made for the gluten-intolerant student and we had to wonder about how many student groups parade through their rooms.  The religion was founded in the early 11th century, and I know that al-Hakim (the slightly deranged caliph who burned down Constantine and Helena's 4th century Holy Sepulcher in 1009) was somehow involved. But that was it in terms of familiarity. So there, with the Druze, it was the utter difference and our complete ignorance that made for authenticity - that left many feeling as though they'd been in the presence of something unique and sincere.  

The Bedouin camp, whose landscape you see above, was a different matter.  Once you've heard of something (i.e., once you've had your expectation shaped/mediated by narrative) your search for authenticity intensifies.  Riding a camel was just so cool that it transcended any self-consciousness about the tourism of it all - we hopped on after the last group had hopped off, and hopped off to make way for the next group.  I don't know how many students were channeling Lawrence of Arabia, but it wasn't far from my mind. We had tea, we had coffee, one of our School of Music students sang a wedding song with our host, and then we bedded down for the night in our enormous tents.  For the students who hadn't sought religious authenticity, the Bedouin camp was it - was where they were going to feel the "real Israel."  What thwarted the authenticity this time was quiet spectacular: a birthright group from Argentina staying in neighboring tents and positively giddy with their youth (i.e. loud), and then, an Israeli software company having a Roman toga party in the main hall.  Being about 10 miles from Masada (where in 72 C.E. Roman troops either massacred or prompted the suicide of hundreds of Jews) made it all the stranger.  I was secretly thrilled that some students were aghast (they cared enough about Masada to be outraged!).  One student, a young Lutheran who is learning Arabic and is about to join the Marine Corps, had had his authentic Israel thwarted one too many times. In the quiet of the night, he took off and walked about an hour out into the sand dunes and sat in the still darkness of the desert very far from the madding crowd (at midnight?).

I get postmodernism, I really do.  The constructions of authenticity are more interesting than the authenticity itself. How this young man arrived at the certitude that solitude in the desert (so Lawrence!) was the authentic experience of Israel is fascinating. The meta (the frame, the desire, the talk, the expectation) of authenticity is where I will willingly linger.  Does that mean that an authentic response to Israel, the Holy Land, the Holy Sepulcher, the Garden Tomb, the Druze, the Bedouins is impossible?  It might mean that it's beside the point - because all of the institutions, histories, and narratives that would make that authentic experience are just so interesting that they will always distract from the abandon and passion that authenticity require.  I can distinctly hear a particular friend of mine dubbing postmodernism and its interest in frames rather than centers as a defense mechanism to the Real, the True, and the Authentic. Granted. But granted, also, is the importance of understanding how authenticity is achieved (or thought to be achieved). I think, now, of the Crusaders, and of the feat of certitude and authenticity that they pulled off.  For authenticity is also linked to possession - the intimacy it creates with its site avails that site to your possession.  And possess the Holy Land they did, those Crusaders. Authenticity, to sum up, connotes origins, authority, the exotic, possession, the familiar, and maybe even truth. It calls for the bracketing off (yes, think Husserl) of distractions and frames and anything that might condition the authentic experience, or make it contingent on anything but an immediate (sensory?) response. It is all center with no margins. (Hmmm, this is starting to sound awfully modernist, and I wonder about medieval authenticity, and its being bolstered by multiple frames of reference, typology (think Kathleen Biddick) and the like.) I do think it can happen: Nature, Sex, Birth, Death (hmm, Lacanian categories of the Real) are all sites of authenticity. But can a land as complicated as Israel yield up an authentic experience of religion? of the divine?

You'll think me irreverent if you follow this link, but this guy makes me (and 25+ million other viewers) genuinely happy (and unsettled, and then happy again).  Here's an authentic response if ever there was one. And, for the record, I think he's high on life. It can happen.

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