Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Impostor

The tale of Lev Nussimbaum aka Essad Bey aka Kurban Said, and its competent telling in Tom Reiss' The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, throws into stark relief both the attraction of the impostor and the irreducibility of historical context in human lives. Born into a wealthy oil-magnate Jewish family in Baku (now Azerbaijan) on the shores of the Caspian Sea, Lev responded to the brutal reverses of the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, and then the rise of Nazism in the country to which he as exiled, by writing and re-inventing himself. Reiss writes:

For most of his life until fortune threw him to a place where he could no longer joke about such things, Lev would keep up a kind of comic dialogue with his writer friends about his "transformation" from Lev to Essad. It was not that he mocked his conversion or allowed others to. But among those he felt he could understand, and these were mostly his fellow Jews, he seemed to think it fair to reveal the transformation. With anyone else, he grew circumspect, neither denying nor accepting that he was covering up something. Rather than trying to refute anything, he responded by diving deeper into his identity and becoming more and more the Orientalist--more and more Essad Bey.

Remember transformation for a moment. I'll come back to that.

Many Jews of the late-19th and early 20th centuries adopted a stance as eastern, Asian, non-European, seeing in Muslim and other Eastern peoples kindred spirits opposed to the Europeans among whom they lived and who reviled them as conjunctures demanded. Lev was of this ideational caste, if you will, and as such might not precisely be seen as an impostor if we can accept that he genuinely converted to Islam and subsequently adopted a Turkish name. But he rewrote his past, and he dodged his present, and his religious system was always an act and never a belief. The identity came first and religion had to follow. That is a less rare pattern than one might imagine ... I believe it is precisely the pattern that has so many atheist politicians trundling off to church every week (does anyone with a rational mind believe that Hillary truly believes, or for that matter Obama notwithstanding his genuine earnestness?).

There was one exception to the precedence of artifice over belief in Lev, however. He was a genuine monarchist, a devoted follower of the dead Czar as well as the exiled Sultan and erstwhile Caliph. The historical background is that his life declined along with monarchy. But there is more to monarchism than nostalgia. It represents a pointed and deliberate false consciousness especially in a man as quick-witted and intelligent as Lev.

Monarchism is the worship of impostors. How's that? Monarchy is like religion in that any rational analysis reduces it to the nothing that belies it. What props up monarchs and gods is charisma and history and, again, irreducibility. To abuse the phrase of the day, they are what they are. So long as they hold power, they are powerful. When they no longer hold power they are windbags ... nothing more than the puffed up claims that surround them. To believe in them after their demise is affect because there is nothing to believe in ... the charisma has become a chimera.

For a man who constructed his life from whole cloth, monarchy conveys a sufficient reference to a reality in which the impostor can invest so as to create an imagined reality that is the imposter's stock in trade. Look back, young man, for the future bodes ill. It is in your imagined past, young man, that you can find the girding that will save you, nourish you, make you into what you can no longer be.

Again, Reiss writes:

He had had few friends growing up and had a precocious child's wariness of other children. Indeed, his passage praising absolute czardom begins with a short speech on why "I love old people, detest the youth"; the old are "calmer, cleverer, and more modest," and when the young turn their backs on them, as they inevitably do, they "must consequently fall into barbarism."

I love old people too ... like my father before me, I have always had friends older and often much older than me. As I get older, I tend to grouse all the more at the barbarism of intemperate youth ... notwithstanding the obvious fact that they are pretty wallpaper. That said, I have always been young ... by which I mean that I am impatient and revolutionary by nature. I do not brook idiocy and my definition of idiocy is broad and sharp ... I also enjoy oxymorons ... and I fail to understand why people are stuck and incapable of understanding history and necessity. The older people who are or have been my friends are young in that same way. And by turns, so many of the young about me are old in the sense that they accept what is given to them and look only for their own comfort. They bear similarity to the young of Lev's day I that they accepted what was given to them and looked for their own aggrandizement through a reductionist view of history. Our youth seem to have no sense of history ... time will have to tell whether that is a benefit or a torment.

What Lev saw in the old was that they understood transformation in a loose way, a clever way, modestly and with a smirk and a smile. What he detested in the young was their ideological fervor as he experienced it in the rise of the goose stepping youth of the brownshirts and the imperturbable murderers under red banners.

So, transformation. Impostors do transformations. They are loose about it. The con man smiles and draws you in. My father called one of my younger brother's best friends a "beloved infidel" ... the guy was an impostor, but you had to believe and you had to accept the letdown because you knew you had believed. You could not pretend otherwise. Transformation on some level is not being able to pretend otherwise.

There is another kind of impostor, the one who does fake-outs, and regressions, and bait and switch. The one who substitutes glibness and the snide for the con man smiles. What is appealing in the impostor like Lev is disgusting in the ideological impostor.

I speak, of course, of neo-cons and other such reductionist ideologues of contempt and self-assurance.

My readerly ride through the terrifying years of the 20s and 30s with Lev/Essad was a little easier than it usually is. I have always found the interwar period one of the most difficult in history to imagine because the horrors into which it descended were so unprecedented in scale. Did Lev's peers know? Did the cabaret people, the communists, the brown shirts, the working class, the street walkers ... did they have any inkling of the guillotine blade under which they lived, of the rapid drop into hell which the uncertainty of their lives portended?

In that vein, I sought out some reading on the development of thought and politics in the 19th century. I really want to read about German and Italian unification, but then I stumbled on Michael Burleigh's Earthly Powers. Sure, I thought, there's a meditation on how junctures arise in history.

Alas, the book is mired in the inability of the simple-minded to get beyond finding someone to blame. And who, do you suppose, would be at fault for both Nazism and Bolshevism ... why the Enlightenment, of course, not to mention pretty much anybody who lived before during or after the events and to whom one can paste the label "liberal".

The book was so nauseating that I could not get past page 44 ... I actually wrote "this is unreadable" at the bottom of page 39. The problem too often with the modern ideologue is that he cannot let himself resist snideness no matter how many opportunities are presented. Adjectives and asides and little sneers everywhere. So, speaking of the era of the Enlightenment, he writes:

Censorship, lax in practice but all the more resented in theory, as well as ferocious blasphemy and sacrilege laws, sought to compel orthodoxy. The philosophes tended to highlight the most extreme cases, often omitting crucial details that might have modified their starkly contrived contrasts. (page 30)

Elsewhere, he refers to the "several existing tendencies and novel developments that are known as the Enlightenment" (page 37) ... in other words, the great force that initiated the permanent decentralization of religion and idolatry in European life if

In other words ... and this is the essence of the weakly expressed thesis of the book ... Catholicism and absolutism were kindly forces that occasionally did naughty things, but really given a few more decades they would have led the world to a peaceable kingdom of goodness and light, and the awful liberals and Nazis and Bolsheviks would never have come to pass. If only those horrible impostors, the philosophes, had not mucked it all up. O for a good auto-da-fe ... where was holy mother church when we needed it.

Burleigh like all neo-cons is an impostor. They claim a connection to the past, but they sing a tune that makes no sense. They pose as monarchists or defenders of holy mother church (I have no proof, but I'll eat my hat if this guy isn't a revanchist Catholic). But in fact they propound a radical theory of the dissolution of democracy. They are not conservatives ... they are radicals who seek to enshrine an entirely new political elite who are beyond critique.

What a contrast is the transforming impostor Lev from the dissembling impostor Burleigh. Remember that things called by the same names are not by force the same.

Mark Lilla, who wrote the saddeningly sycophantic The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West about which I commented here and here, wrote a "damning with faint praise" review in the New York Times. Lilla writes:

The utopians did not believe in God but they very much believed in religion. That is the truly novel development in the 19th century, and one which Hurleigh never manages to bring into focus: the less people talked about God, the more they talked and worried about religion. For the utopians, the revolution's defeat of the Catholic Church represented an enormous step forward for the human race, but also posed an unprecedented challenge. Once men thought themselves free from God they might think themselves free from one another, like elementary particles floating in the void. What modern, postrevolutionary society needed was a new religion, or a surrogate one, a system of symbols and ceremonies bringing individuals together without reference to a revealing, transcendent God.

There is so much teleology here that it is hard to swallow. Society did make some civic gods, and Burleigh blames all of that on the Enlightenment ... but history is never complete. So the fact that the first attempts at constructing a civil life without the stultifying effects of godliness were incomplete is hardly surprising. The fact that some of them were more bloody than anything that had come before is an effect of the industrial means at hand ... only a fool would wish upon us the medieval inquisition in possession of the tools of modern destructiveness.

Burleigh is just such a fool. In that, he poses as an impostor, for he is surely intelligent enough to know that there is no going back, and that his very stance is itself as much a daughter of the Enlightenment as is liberalism or socialism or agnosticism of what have you. So he pretends to this conservatism ... but it is a lie. No, for the neo-cons, there is much more afoot. There is a bloody reaction, the telling doom of their enemies, the victory of their snide asides.

Ooops ... now their hero is McCain ... how the feigning mighty are melting into dust.

I will try to return to the relationship of fascism and religion at a later point.

Tonight's drink is a PiƱa Colada, RL's very own recipe, as he says. And then, a hard day having been had by all, we followed that with an exquisite Blue Moon, this one slightly flavored with a little Marie Brizzard Parfait Amour ... which makes it just a little grapey in a carnavalesque sort of way.

Photo by Arod of a window on Noe Street in the Castro.

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