Friday, May 05, 2023

An Outsider on the Inside: Writers & Missionaries- Essays on the Radical Imagination by Adam Shatz

"Legend has it that, in 1956, when Soviet tanks overthrew the council government in Budapest, an officer asked Georg Lukács to hand over his weapon and the latter gave him his pen."
                              (Enzo Traverso, Revolution: An Intellectual History)

For some time now, Adam Shatz has been producing informative and well-considered  essays, reportage and interviews in publications like the  London Review of Books, New York Review of Books and The Nation. In addition, he also hosts Myself With Others, a podcast in which he converses  with an assortment of writers, musicians and public intellectuals, most of whom it turns out seem to be  his friends. But what first brought his work to my attention were his articles on jazz,  deep and lengthy pieces, the kind one doesn't come across very often, on the likes of  Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Cecil Taylor, Frank Kimbrough, etc.. Perhaps the latter will constitute a future volume, because it's a  subject that's noticeably absent in Shatz's excellent Writers & Missionaries: Essays on the Radical Imagination. Instead, what Shatz has put together here is a  series of essays- most of which have appeared in one form or another in the above periodicals- focusing on writers and intellectuals and how they have been able to articulate their politics given the factions, circumstances and hardline positions that exist, whether today or in the recent past.  Related to that is the degree to which such writers manage to accomplish this without sacrificing their humanity or perspective. It's a situation that the New York-based Shatz also addresses when it comes to his own writing. In other words, faced with present day inequities, how does someone in his profession negotiate the tightrope that separates journalism from activism, reportage from propaganda.     

To this end, Writers & Missionaries kicks-off with a series of essays on a number of Middle East writers. These include Fouad Ajami, and his  winding road  from Lebanese intellectual to neocon favourite; the Algerian writer and politically liberal Kamel Daoud; the life and death of the Israeli-Palestinian director of the Freedom Theatre Juliano Mer-Khamis; and the Palestinian nationalism of the renown Edward Said. All of them nuanced in their perspective, even if none, with the exception of Said, are exactly household names. But that only makes these chapters  all the more informative, interesting and important. 

Shatz then sets his sights on  Paris with a series of finely modulated entries on three African American writers: Chester Himes, Richard Wright and William Gardner Smith. With all three having self-exiled  in Paris at roughly the same time, Shatz examines how this group of writers were able to deal with the relationship between their politics and their displacement, as well as the dynamics surrounding the racism they were escaping from and the racism inherent in their adoptive country, particularly when it comes to the relationship between Algerians and the French state, which, as exotic exiles, they did or did not notice, much less act upon. Shatz remains in France for the next section, in which he tackles a handful of  French writers and intellectuals: Levi-Strauss, Derrida, Barthes, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Michel Houllebecq, as well as film-makers Claude Lanzman and Jean-Pierre Melville. The latter two constitute an interesting comparison: the former an  ultra-Zionist who directed Shoah, and the latter a WW2 maquis activist, whose participation would influence his future films, whether those with a war time or film noir setting. Shatz concludes this section with another interesting comparison: that of Jean-Paul Sartre and the leftist Egyptian writer Arwa Salih, and their respective positions  regarding the Algerian war of independence, Israel and the plight of the Palestinians.    

Even if one is familiar with some of the writers discussed, Shatz’s perspective will invariably be enlightening. For instance, his reading of Michel Houllebecq might surprise those who harbour, as I do, an instinctive dislike for this racaille of contemporary French fiction. Enough, at any rate, to make any hardened Houllebecq critic consider having another look at his writing. Though perhaps the same can't be said about Alain Robbe-Grillet. After reading that particular chapter, it would be difficult for many to read this most renown of nouveau roman novelists without taking into account his sadomasochistic tendencies, turning that famous camera-eye style into something that has less to do with the cinema or hardboiled fiction than with the cold stare of pornography. It's a flirtation that, in turn, might also cause some  to feel a pang of guilt for being advocates of that particular writer, along with his proclamations regarding the future direction of the novel.  
Shatz ends Writers & Missionaries with two extended essays in which he looks at his own life: the first, from which the book's title is taken, concerns his relationship to the Middle East, and, as a non-Zionist Jew, his identification with, and commitment to, those who live there, albeit as an outsider; and, lastly, an extended essay on his teenage years as an obsessive but creative  high-end chef, which, like the previous essay, reads as a stand-in for Shatz's own political evolution as a leftist with an internationalist perspective.   

It's no stretch of the imagination to think of Shatz as one of  those cosmopolitan intellectuals that  Enzo Traverso describes in his book Revolution: An Intellectual History  (Traverso being one of Shatz’s “rabbis,” and subject of a fascinating  interview on an LRB podcast), though, if rootless, Shatz is no doubt more so in spirit than  in fact.  An intellectual in an age of informationals, Shatz certainly remains on the missionary end of the spectrum, minus the colonial baggage and dogmatism normally associated with the term. Negotiating that slippery slope, Shatz digs deep into the circumstances of his subjects, allowing them- the oppressed, the exiled, the outsider- to speak, whenever possible, for themselves. In the end, he reminds us that, though a vanishing breed, public intellectuals who double as cross-cultural ambassadors play a vital role in the function and drift of what is possible. This as opposed to the critique du siécle about which Shatz also ponders, namely, why write at a time when  the meaning of authorship is being questioned? This dialectic could be taken as the sub-structure of  Shatz's book, one  he alludes to on more than one occasion. Addressing that conundrum, Shatz holds fast to his progressive politics,  observing, explaining and interpreting, particularly when it comes to Middle East resistance movements, while zeroing in on particular activists. All the while knowing that no matter how much he might identify with such movements and activists, he, whether by profession, disposition, politics or culture, will invariably remain something of an outsider. But t’s that  self-assumed role that informs his writing and which makes it so accessible. Reading Shatz,  one inevitably discovers currents and thinkers that, considering the sharp shocks of today's instantaneous culture, one might otherwise have never known about. Speaking personally, if not for Shatz, I would never  have known about several of the Middle Eastern writers included in this volume, nor, to go further afield, would I have comes across the likes of Traverso as well as  the incredible anti-fascist forger Adolfo Kaminsky (A Forger's Life), the former a subject of a Shatz interview, and the latter the focus of an LRB article. Whether as  interrogator, journalist, public critic, Shatz remains an important contributor in a world that can be as boundary-defying as it is parochial.

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