Put Off Holiness
On the day I finished this book, the Israeli government was busy razing Palestinian homes in retaliation for recent terrorist events. Israel had deliberately rendered homeless hundreds of its Gaza citizens, as it had done many times in the past. I’m sure the irony was not lost on Joel Schalit, whose first book, Jerusalem Calling: A Homeless Conscience in a Post-Everything World, is a thoughtful meditation on his own politics, ideology, and heritage as a Marxist, a secular Jew, and a scion of one of Israel’s founding families. During a time when it becomes increasingly difficult to sympathize with the state of Israel, a refreshingly moral, reflective voice is welcome. Though uneven, Schalit’s debut is noteworthy.
The book combines tweedy rant with engaging memoir to reveal a refreshingly cynical, cloyingly elitist, and analytically Marxist point of view. Much like historical precedents such as Arthur Koestler, he is more an assembler of found ideas than an original thinker. Yet he’s young enough to start positing a fascinating worldview, one worth watching as the world goes to pot.
Unless you’re symbolically panhandling on a street corner, metaphorically slurping swill at a soup kitchen, or ironically cursing the government that just bulldozed your home, the term “homeless” is a cop-out. When thirty-something dissertator Schalit drops the word in the subtitle to his first book, all he’s saying is that his conscience is unhinged and ambiguous, and that he’s moved around a lot (Italy, Spain, England, Israel, Oregon). “Homeless”, especially as a metaphor, means you have no place to go, not that you have a world at your fingertips.
The cover blurb says that Jerusalem Calling “signals the emergence of a new breed of public intellectual”. But this is a ruse, since secular Marxist Jews have been scribbling in earnest for over a century, and Schalit does little to place himself outside that honorable tradition. Indeed, when compared to predecessors such as Daniel Bell, Irving Howe, Alan Wald, Marshall Berman, or even Arthur Koestler, Schalit reads like a grad-school horn book. Jerusalem Calling is a sequence of four long essays, each tackling a massive well-trodden theme: religion, war, music, and Israel. His “post-everything world” is, unfortunately, not a post-academia world, and he is a victim of the familiar tendency toward mush-mouth jargon among today’s eager grad students (all of whom are discouraged from speaking in strong, loud voices by a patrimonial academic establishment). He’s young yet.
The opening essay, “America the Enchanted”, is a savage indictment of the role of fundamentalist Christianity in America today. He begins with a strange recollection of his stint in an Episcopalian boarding school, recalling his feelings of alienation as one of the only Jews there. (I was more curious about why a New York City teenager would enroll in a Portland, Oregon boarding school —let alone an Episcopalian one—but he doesn’t go into detail on that point.) This is all preface to his real mission: to reveal the true nature of fundamentalism in the United States. Such savage criticisms, coming from a secular neo-Marxist, are like shooting fish in a barrel. His audience seems to be a tight clique of smirking grad students, all of whom (rightly) consider Jerry Falwell to be a troglodyte with a herd of flying monkeys. I mean, who doesn’t think American religious fundamentalism is silly and reactionary? Me, I kept frowning, and wishing he’d use his cynical, acerbic mindset to find more difficult targets—such as Jewish fundamentalism in Israel, Marxist fundamentalism in academia. At least he’s self-aware, though. Taking on the voice of his sympathetic critics, he jokes, “I might be flirting with radical chic, but I’m never going to stop being a pseudo-revolutionary poseur”.
He’s hampered by a wooden prose style that’s heavily larded with acadamic-ese. For example, when he complains that reactionary religious movements have harnessed the populist power of the internet, he gets positively woolly: “No matter how diligently individuals who are convinced of the Internet’s potential strive to escape history, they will always be confronted with forces like the religious right that are proactively intent on making new technology subservient to antiquity”. What he’s saying is that the web is just a tool, one that serves reactionary purposes just as well as it does utopian visionaries. But his point is lost in an orthographic thicket.
His next essay is an odd little piece called “Seeing Red”—the title a pun on an excellent Minor Threat song. He bravely reveals his Marxist—not to mention communist—leanings, and waxes garrulous about anti-globalism and the war in Yugoslavia. Since he had been regularly proclaiming his Marxist credentials through the first essay, I was hoping for some strident bitterness or class analysis, some evidence that his Marxism was based on real struggle rather than academic fashion. But no, it seems to have more to do with spending much of his childhood in Italy, where Communists were still a major political force. Actually, I found this to be pretty cool, especially since his Marxist mindset offered very little class analysis throughout the book, and he wears his alienation from working-class experience on his sleeve.
Although I try my best to retain solidarity with fellow-travelers on the Left, I still found it excruciating to read the passage where he and his fashionable girlfriend are on vacation in Paris. They gently kiss over croissants and orange juice, he makes some photocopies at the Sorbonne, he rejoices at the sight of a new Jacques Derrida book at a Parisian bookstore, he gets bummed out by the war in Yugoslavia. The essay continues on with forays into the misuse of the term “fascism”, the horrors of genocide in Bosnia, and his own sense of alienation. It’s a mixed bag: as a meditation on the nature of his elite leftist experience, it half-succeeds. As an insight into geopolitics and linguistics, it falls flat. When he calls himself an “over-educated theoretician”, though, he’s right on the money.
At last, we come to the part where he talks about music. He was, after all, the editor of Punk Rock Planet, a fine little rock’n'roll magazine. “Down and Out with Rock and Roll” is an essay that’s dripping with unnecessary cynicism and regret. His stance is unabashedly elitist. He loved the early Nirvana singles, but then hated the band when they signed to Geffen and made it big. He seems to believe punk rock sellout is inevitable, given the current market conditions. He becomes so disillusioned that he stops listening to music altogether for a year. As a principled and enthusiastic music lover, I was mostly unconvinced by his digging around the DIY closet for scraps of sell-out and betrayal.
Indeed, when he talked about music, his attitude seemed so intensely elitist, spare, and puritanical that he may as well have been painting Socialist Realism murals for Enver Hoxha. His disillusionment reveals a certain alienation from today’s music—principled, hard-working, populist bands like the Dillinger Four, Dropkick Murphys, and Le Tigre are easy counter-arguments to most of his jaded attitude toward punk. He uses most of his positive energy to talk about his own band, the Christal Methodists, though he fails to see the irony of his own betrayal of principle when he brags about their being featured in Details magazine. If anything, Schalit proves (again) that there is one unbending rule in modern music: nothing stands up to scrutiny.
By far, the book’s finest moment is the closing essay, “My Own Private Israel”, which succumbs to some of the flaws of the other pieces, yet stands apart because his autobiographical forays actually authenticate his rant, rather than distract from it. Schalit is Jewish, and his family played a central part in the founding of the state of Israel. Zionism is in his blood, you might say. Yet his knowledge of Hebrew is shaky at best, and his conscience is damn near grief-stricken to hear of the latest abuses the Israeli government has inflicted on the Palestinian people. When it comes to the state of Israel, Schalit seems to realize that his conscience is not homeless at all: instead, his home is losing its conscience.
He confronts his own idealism, his sense of principle, and his proud ethnic heritage with an unsparing eye. At last, he stands firm on some heart-rending issues: “I knew I should be more forgiving, because in my heart of Marxist hearts I could see that my family’s religiosity was no less a product of the stress of historical circumstance than my own confusion, even if they had chosen to believe instead of think”. Schalit likes to think, rather than simply believe, and it is this virtue that will probably sustain him as he strengthens his voice and offers us a firm and just conscience in a pre-utopian world. And I suspect he knows that future readers will judge him by the contents, not the bottle. Jerusalem Calling is not a perfect book, and at times it is mushy and intolerable. But there is no doubt that Schalit can only get better, and his progressive, principled voice will be one to watch. In an amoral world, once again turned upside down, a homeless conscience comes as a solid relief.