The paradoxical nature of Gadi Taub's literary persona
Intelligent, nonconformist and charismatic, Gadi Taub is an undeniably impressive figure. But in a new collection of cultural essays, it's not always clear what he's trying to accomplish, or where precisely he is positioning himself.
Neged Bedidut: Reshamim
(Against Solitude: Impressions ), by Gadi Taub Yedioth Ahronoth Books (Hebrew ), 246 pages, NIS 88
There are writers and intellectuals whose presence in our culture is so intense that it almost seems as if each of them is accompanied by a second persona, a kind of alter ego with a life of its own way beyond that of the real person. The power of Gadi Taub's literary persona is, it appears, connected paradoxically to its contradictions. On the one hand, he is a Tel Aviv celebrity, a former star of children's television; on the other hand, he is a serious intellectual who bears the burden of Zionism and its fragmentation on his shoulders. On the one hand, he has a Ph.D. in history and is well-connected in academia; and on the other, he is an unruly and uninhibited author who writes about Tel Aviv in the flesh. Whether or not this combination seems natural, it certainly can't be taken for granted. Even Lea Goldberg - one of the first multi-taskers in Hebrew literature - at a certain point gave up her literary career because of her desire to write non-fiction so that she could get tenure at the university. In this light, the flexibility and naturalness with which Taub moves between different writing genres and academia, media and other cultural activities cannot help but arouse admiration.
Unlike many other intellectuals, Taub is seen as someone who goes against the prevailing trend: In the '90s, he led the "lean writing" movement, as a response to the overly literary writing that characterized Israeli literature from what is known as the Generation of the State and onwards, which labored under the burden of the past and its forefathers. In recent years he has come out against the idea of post-Zionism that is so popular in academia, and against academic discourse in general as it has been shaped in the post-structuralist tradition of Michel Foucault and his successors. That's a discourse he seeks to replace with an opposing tradition, based on a new obligation to society (and the nation ), and on accessibility, simplicity and comprehensibility.
And so, I too will speak plainly. Unlike Taub's critics in academia, I do not share an automatic opposition to his cultural-political agenda. Even though I certainly don't always agree completely with his beliefs, I appreciate his honesty and directness and think that it is important to criticize the university world from within, and in general to criticize and dig, always, underneath the cultural, literary or political zeitgeist. For this reason, I approached Taub's new book, "Against Solitude: Impressions," with great interest. The book is the first volume in a series (the second will be called "Against Solitude: Thoughts" ) - a project based on different texts by Taub: jottings, opinion pieces and short stories, most of which have appeared in newspapers over the years. The subject that connects these texts is a critique of individualism, or, to be more precise, a criticism of destructive Western-capitalist individualism, which takes on, according to Taub, different shapes in contemporary Israeli culture.
Language of the drugstore
Although Taub announces in the introduction that what he calls his "impressions" are based on an impressionistic style of writing (as opposed to the forthcoming "thoughts" volume, based, he says, on "more methodical" writing ), this book is constructed quite methodically, perhaps even too much so. In effect, the reader feels that, like every other experienced academic, Taub seeks to arrive at his thesis, his argument, as fast as possible. Taub's main argument says this, more or less: In a society in which individualism is of the highest value and "connecting with oneself" is a marketable product, collective responsibility is neglected, along with morality, love and even culture, literature and language, which becomes the antiseptic language of the drugstore, emptied of feeling.
This is certainly a strong argument, but at the same time it is neither new nor revolutionary. Over the last few decades, many thinkers have connected New Age culture with capitalism; in Israel in 1997, Idan Landau published a groundbreaking and controversial essay on the ethical dangers of post-modernism (although from a political perspective quite different from Taub's ). Furthermore, one gets the feeling that the texts Taub uses to make his point - for example, Gabi Nitzan's best-seller "Badolina," and Shari Arison's pseudo-spiritual agenda - are rather obvious. Is there anyone who believed that Shari Arison shed her (capitalist ) skin when she offered New Age workshops to her employees that would enable them to "go with the flow" of suffering? Is there anything surprising about the fact that most books like Nitzan's "Badolina" are aimed - like most of the know-thyself type - at raking in profits? It seems that Taub views the object of his criticism with the innocent eyes of a child discovering the world's cruelty and hypocrisy for the first time.
This discovery is important and necessary, but there is a sense that Taub comes down a bit hard on the weak; not the weaker layers of society - he is actually empathetic toward them - but those who are weak in terms of their symbolic cultural power, where he is a major player. It is not much of a surprise that one of the texts Taub singles out for praise is the novel that has already been canonized in Israel: Amos Oz's "Tale of Love and Darkness." Even if Oz's book deserves such praise, I couldn't help but ask myself whether Taub was capable of formulating an anti-capitalist critique, such as the one he makes about the popular "Badolina," about Oz's memoir.
Even the texts in which Taub distances himself from the academic essay genre and approaches literary prose, are, in the end, texts with a thesis. Take, for example, the opening piece, "Killing the Pig," in which Taub returns to one of the settings he favors as an author - the nightclub. Taub portrays the tumultuous happenings at Berlin's famed sex club, the Kitkat, in picturesque language; his visit there brings him to the (not very extreme, it must be said ) conclusion that in the present age, alienated sex enables an escape from love and intimacy, a combination that threatens modern individualism even more than sex acts in public.
Beyond the fact that there is something patronizing about his (extremely convincing! ) depictions of sex, which lead him once again to a general statement about the human condition, the question may be asked: What is the exact nature of the point of view taken by Taub, the concealed author-narrator, as he describes his visit to the Berlin club? Does he appear there as a sort of anthropologist, a lofty cultural critic, or someone whose aim is to experiment personally with the hedonism offered by the club? And if the latter possibility is the correct one, why is there no self-documentation in the text? Henry Miller, for example, devoted most of his writing to documenting his visits to nightclubs and brothels in Paris. The result is that some of his texts are at least as amusing, intelligent and even political as they are sexy (or misogynist, depending, of course, on your point of view ). The sense is that Taub, in contrast, is not prepared to be dirtied by the reality he reports on, and so he remains always on the outside, protected by the privileged position from which he views the lower depths.
The same uncomfortable feeling takes over in the final text, "Father's Girls," which deals with incest between fathers and daughters as reflected in works by three American writers, Sue Silverman, Charlotte Weil and Kathryn Harrison. Taub notes at the beginning of his essay that he "happened to learn [about the phenomenon of incest] a few years ago when I worked at a home for girls," adding immediately, "I am not a therapist; I helped with homework once a week." While this statement is apparently made in modesty, it reveals again the problematics of point of view that arises all through the book. On the one hand, "Father's Girls" does not offer a psychological analysis of incest (although it does contain more than a few psychological diagnoses ), because Taub is not a psychoanalyst. On the other hand, the essay isn't really a literary analysis, as Taub does not often pause on the literary aspects of the three books under discussion. In some ways, this essay is investigative journalism: It is based on a series of Taub's pieces that were published in Haaretz and included excerpts from interviews he held with these three American authors. These interviews show clearly that Taub felt a real empathy with his interviewees, an empathy that they obviously sensed, and all three answer his questions with great candor. Nonetheless, it is hard not to wonder why Taub investigated this difficult and heavily freighted phenomenon, which psychoanalysts and trauma researchers have mulled over for generations, and furthermore: What does he seek to achieve with these interviews? The answer becomes clear toward the end of the piece.
The topic of incest, as difficult and painful as it may be, connects to Taub's thesis. Encounters with the three authors bring him again to the same conclusion: Nothing is worse than the extreme individualism involved in cutting oneself off from society, or, in his words: "crossing the line of the incest taboo threatens to sentence you to exile outside the arena of belonging."
As all the other times when Taub airs his credo, here too it arouses ambivalence. On the one hand, he obligates the readers to raise their glances to Taub, the guide, who leads them to rough or dark places where perhaps they would not go alone. On the other hand, this is exactly the moment when a strong desire awakens to elude the guide's grasp and linger behind, along the way, there where - perhaps - such stormy things don't take place but at least you can travel in a bit of peace.
Tamar Merin is a visiting assistant professor for Hebrew and Israeli literature at Northwestern University.