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"Your eyes meet across the room," writes Zygmunt Bauman, one of the most important social philosophers of our time, in his book "Liquid Love," describing a familiar situation of strangers meeting, "and before you know it ... desire to play in bed together leaps out of nowhere, and it does not need much knocking on the door to be let in. Perhaps uncharacteristically in our security-obsessed world these are doors with few if any locks."

For the wide-open gate of love and sexual relationships in our era, Bauman offers a number of keys to understanding the social, political and cultural contexts that have given rise to phenomena such as long periods of being single, late marriage, early divorce, not having children, "partner swapping," as well as many models of partnership and parenting that are changing the nature of family relations.

"Liquid Love," published in English in 2003, was published this week in Hebrew by Magnes (translated by Ami Shamir), and joins another book by the famous sociologist, "Liquid Modernity," published in 2000 and issued in Hebrew by Magnes about half a year ago (translated by Ben-Zion Herman). The introductions of both books can be read on the publisher's Hebrew Web site (www.magnespress.co.il).

You describe the contemporary world as a place of immediate, short and superficial contacts, a place of desire instead of love, a place where stable partnerships and the traditional structure of the family are disappearing. What do these phenomena reflect?

"Indeed, you are right to point to the instability, brevity and transience of partnerships, plagued as they are by their utilitarian character and the avoidance of long-term commitment: Partnerships today tend to be entered for the sake of satisfaction," replies Bauman in an e-mail interview, in English. "And if they fail to deliver it right away, if they deliver a lesser satisfaction than hoped or if they seem to exhaust their ability to deliver a satisfaction as intense as before - a growing number of people conclude that it would be foolish to continue. Partnerships are increasingly seen through the prism of promises and expectations, and as a kind of product for consumers: satisfaction on the spot, and if not fully satisfied, return the product to the shop or replace it with a new and improved one! You don't after all stick to your car, or computer, or iPod, when better ones appear. So what is so different about partnerships?

"Well, the point is that there is something very different indeed: On the other side of partnerships, unlike in the shopping transaction, there are living human beings. And satisfaction which you expect from partnerships can be had only if they are presumed stable, resistant to change, trustworthy and reliable. In the insecure setting of a liquid-modern society full of uncertainties you need partners and friends of whom you can be sure that they will be there for you in good and bad times alike, whenever you need their understanding, succor and help. Such bonds, however, are not to be found ready-made as laptops in the shops - they require dedication, care, cultivation, hard work and often self-sacrifice. Love is something that needs a complete and unconditional commitment. Otherwise, partnerships offer only a fleeting illusion of union - and when that illusion evaporates, the partners, as Erich Fromm observed, 'feel their estrangement even more markedly than before.'"

According to your diagnosis, love is no longer a source of freedom and safety, but rather a source of enslavement. What is the meaning of this enslavement in a world where ostensibly there are almost no limitations on so-called "free love"?

"The consumerist culture insists that swearing eternal loyalty to anything and anybody is imprudent, since in this world new glittering opportunities crop up daily. And so there is the specter of ambivalence hovering over all commitments, and ambivalence is an unnerving, neurotic condition. Attaching to every successive 'love affair' an 'until further notice' or 'as long as satisfaction lasts' clause, demanding and expecting them to be as easy to break as they are to enter, may be a sensible insurance against ties and obligations that may constrain free choices in the future - but living according to such rules leaves the need of safety permanently unsatisfied, prospects yet more uncertain, fear of loneliness ineradicable. And there is no evident solution to such a quandary."

Marxist views

Bauman, who will celebrate his 82nd birthday on Monday (November 19), has been a researcher and theoretician for about 50 years. He has had great influence not only on sociology, but on such fields as philosophy, history, cultural studies, Holocaust research and criticism of the global economy. He is a professor emeritus of the Universities of Leeds and Warsaw, who continues to publish and to participate in academic conferences; about half of his over 40 books were written after his retirement in 1990. Since 1971 he has been living in Leeds with his wife of 59 years, author Janina Bauman (one of whose books, "Winter in the Morning," about her memories as a girl in the Warsaw Ghetto, was translated into Hebrew).

Bauman was born in Poznan, Poland to Jewish parents who were not religiously observant. With the German invasion of his homeland in 1939, he fled with his family to the Soviet Union, and toward the end of World War II returned as a fighter in the Polish Army that fought under the aegis of the Red Army. After the war he served for several years as an officer in the Polish Army, but was dismissed in 1953 because his father was looking into the possibility of immigrating to Israel. He continued to study sociology at the University of Warsaw, where he also taught and quickly acquired a name as a sociologist with critical Marxist views.

In early 1968 Bauman participated in attempts to liberate Poland after the "Prague Spring," but the dawn did not rise over Warsaw: The leaders of the communist regime removed him as professor of sociology and head of the sociology department, claiming he was the spiritual leader of the rebelling students. Like thousands of Jews in the circles of the Polish intelligentsia at the time, he was also a victim of anti-Semitic persecution. Following his sister and his father, who immigrated before them, Bauman, his wife and their three daughters came to Israel and he taught at universities in Tel Aviv and Haifa until he left for England (see below). The couple's eldest daughter, Anna Sfard, remained in Israel and today is a well-known professor in mathematics education at the University of Haifa; the younger twins, living in England, are artist Lydia Bauman and architect Irene Bauman.

The philosophy Bauman developed later is frequently described as post-modern, although he himself, particularly in recent years, rejects that description. He sees contemporary events as another aspect of the same historical phenomenon, modernity, but believes that it is "modernity emancipated from false consciousness" or "modernity minus its illusion."

According to your understanding, modernity turns individualism into the essence of human beings; they have to create their personality and individuality by themselves during their lifetime. That is fate, not a mission. In "Liquid Modernity" you suggest strengthening the public sphere.

"Yes, we are individuals de jure, by decree. Being a free chooser is not a matter of free choice. But becoming an individual de facto is not a task easily fulfilled - not for a great number of people who lack the resources any serious attempt at self-assertion would require. And even those relatively few who have such resources in abundance face a daunting task and must expect an uphill struggle. No wonder that the questions of individual solutions to socially produced problems figure high on people's minds.

"Our obsessive concern with the production and reproduction of 'own identity,' born together with the modern era, is itself 'socially produced.' In our liquid-modern times, 'identity' is also seen as open to choice: one can be someone other than one is, one can abandon a present identity and acquire a new one, one can hold and present in public simultaneously several identities. The popular ideas of our times are 'new beginnings' and 'being born again'. This is why in the efforts of 'self-creation' and 'self-assertion' there is no finishing line. And little room left for solidarity with other humans."

'Mixophilia and mixophobia'

In 2008 we will witness an historical precedent: According to a United Nations forecast, for the first time, most of the world's population will be living in cities (51 percent - i.e., 3.3 billion people, about 1 billion of whom will reside in poverty-stricken neighborhoods). By 2050 the proportion of urban residents is expected to reach 75 percent. However, in certain countries urbanization is already extremely high: 82 percent of Americans live in cities, as do 85 percent of Brazilians, 90 percent of Britons and 92 percent of Israelis. In "Liquid Modernity" and "Liquid Love," urbanization is presented as the main arena for most contemporary social conflicts.

"The most seminal consequence of the unprecedented urbanization of the planet is the elevation of 'living with strangers' to the rank of the most important of arts which humanity must develop and learn in order to survive," says Bauman. "This is a completely new challenge. At the first wave of urbanization associated with the beginning of the modern era, coexistence of different forms of life was hoped to be but a temporary irritant, as the incomers were expected to assimilate to the dominant culture and to become 'like' the 'natives.' But now we are increasingly aware that the necessity to live with strangers is unlikely to disappear in the foreseeable future, and suspect that it may remain with us forever.

"Living in the company of strangers prompts two contradictory sentiments: of mixophilia and mixophobia. The proximity of strangers arouses curiosity and attracts with its promise of new yet untested experience, of pleasant surprises, adventure, untried possibilities. But proximity of strangers also instills fear: fear of the unknown. Strangers, because of being strangers, are a mystery; it is difficult to be sure what steps they will take, it is impossible to read clearly their intentions. Mixophobia prompts an urge to separate, to hide in closely guarded 'gated communities' which only 'people like us' are allowed to enter, to build high walls and hire armed guards. Or, in the case of those who can't afford such costly investments, to frighten the unwelcome strangers away and bar them from entering by making one's own space a 'no go' area: by riots, violence and lawlessness of the place.

"Present-day massive migration that results in the accelerated urbanization is not caused by local conditions, but by global transformations. In this case, like in so many others, cities serve today as dumping sites for globally created problems, and there is only so much (much too little) that the elders of the city and its residents may do to resolve those problems while confined to their own limited resources. But cities serve today also as the laboratories in which the new art of living permanently with strangers is developed and experimented with, and as schools in which that art is learned and put to practical test. So, in the long run, what we presently gain in the cities, meeting strangers face-to-face and interacting with them with mutual benefit, may yet become a decisive factor in resolving the issues which on a global level, where 'strangers' appear as abstract entities in the equally abstract context of the 'war of civilizations,' seem intractable."

The increasing xenophobia is inseparable from religious extremism, says Bauman. "On our fast-globalizing planet, the 'religionization' of politics, of social grievances and identity-and-recognition battles, seems to be a global tendency. Religionization of politics is the most sinister and awesome menace to the survival of humanity armed with the weapons of mass destruction.

"What is truly worrying in my view are the uses to which religious fundamentalisms are put in the global 'religionized politics' of the forces responsible for the world (dis)order. The U.S. intends to pump into the Middle East in the next 10 years new high-tech weapons worth 26 billion euros. Almost all of those weapons will go to the fundamentalist regimes, denying not just essential democratic freedoms to their subjects, but the very need for democracy, assuming that the sharia, and its clerical interpreters, have the answers to all problems that may arise.

"Transformed into the largest warehouse of weapons on the planet, the Middle East is turned into the enormous powder keg bound sooner or later to explode. Since the CIA destroyed the democratically elected government of Mossadeq in Iran, through lavishly financing the fundamentalist germs of the present-day Al-Qaida, and up to the recent release of fundamentalist forces kept in check by Saddam Hussein, it has been the democratic powers of the globe that, in the name of selfish interests, fed and cultivated the budding fundamentalisms."

As opposed to many intellectuals identified with post-modern thought, Bauman believes that in the puzzling and anxiety-arousing conditions of the present era, and after all the major utopias and liberation ideologies have disappointed, there is room for world-embracing as well as human-embracing, ethical activity. At the heart of his thinking beats the desire to reformulate the principles of human ethical responsibility, while calling for social solidarity and identification with the distress of the other, of anyone harmed by social gaps and the processes of modernization.

"In practical terms," Bauman says, "it means that however a human may resent being left alone to his or her own counsel and own responsibility, it is precisely that loneliness that contains a hope of a morally impregnated togetherness.

"There is no guarantee that the choices and the resulting conduct will be the ethically proper and laudable choice between good and evil. The point is, though, that both the blunders and the right choices arise from the same condition of individual responsibility. Without bracing oneself for the possibility of wrong choices, little could be done to persevere in the search of the right choice. Far from being a major threat to morality (and so an abomination to ethical philosophers), uncertainty is the home-ground of the moral person and the only soil on which morality can sprout and flourish."

'I haven't dried a swamp'

One of Bauman's most important books is "Modernity and the Holocaust," published in 1989, in which he speaks out against viewpoints that interpret the Holocaust as a regression from modernity to bestial barbarity or craziness, and demonstrates that the project of destroying European Jewry was nothing more than exploitation and improvement of the mechanisms and ideas developed by modern rationalism. Continuing the work of philosophers and scholars like Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Raul Hilberg and Hannah Arendt, Bauman claims that science, bureaucracy, economics and technology, with their purposefulness and efficiency, and their moral blindness, participated in paving the way to the gas chambers. And as he puts it: "Modern civilization was not the Holocaust's sufficient condition; it was, however, most certainly its necessary condition. Without it, the Holocaust would be unthinkable."

Another interesting Holocaust-related work by Bauman is an essay which criticizes the Zionist use of the memory of the Holocaust. According to his diagnosis, the logic that guides Israel - to the effect that the Jews are in a perpetual state of a "Holocaust-in-the-making" - leads to tendencies of withdrawal and isolationism and causes the failure of attempts at reconciliation with the world.

It was these tendencies that led Bauman to leave Israel 36 years ago, although he was offered tenure as a professor here. When he arrived in Israel after being persecuted in Poland, he quickly learned Hebrew and before beginning his lectures at Tel Aviv University, he was interviewed (in fluent Hebrew) by Shulamit Hareven at Haaretz (January 3, 1969). He expressed a hope that in Israel he would be able to contribute to academic development, to the integration of new immigrants and to advancing students of Mizrahi (North African and Middle Eastern) origin. To Hareven's question as to why he refrained from criticism, he replied: "I don't feel that I have a right to level criticism about things in which I have no personal contribution. I haven't dried a single piece of swamp in this country."

Bauman indeed didn't dry many swamps here, and when asked now about the circumstances under which he left Israel, he writes: "In 1968, my family and I ran from rampant nationalism in Poland; we were, as Jews were so many times and in so many places before, victims of tribal sentiments and national chauvinism. To victimization, two responses are conceivable. One is revenge - replying to 'their nationalism' with 'my own nationalism.' An eye for an eye, tribe against tribe. Another is the realization that nationalism is evil - and dedicating one's life to fighting nationalisms in any form and color. I've selected the second response. I believe, and repeat again and again ever since, that the wound inflicted by one nationalism can't be healed or compensated by wounds inflicted by another nationalism and that the only outcome of behaving as if it could is starting a schismogenetic chain of escalating violence and hatred and swelling of the sum total of evil. Jews can be safe only in a world free of nationalisms, and that includes Jewish nationalism. Who else, if not us, the Jews, should have learned that lesson of history by heart and become preachers of the truth it revealed?

"Shortly before leaving Israel in 1971 I wrote the article 'Al Israel Lhitkonen Leshalom' ["Israel must prepare for peace"], published in Haaretz (August 7, 1970). I tried to anticipate the consequences which the occupation of someone else's land and exercising coercion which such occupation inevitably requires are bound to have on the structure, ethical standards and moral fiber of the occupier. I am sorry to say that what actually happened since is even less prepossessing than I managed then to anticipate. It would be interesting, but depressing, to collate a second volume of "Siakh Lokhamim" ("The Seventh Day: Soldiers Talk About the Six-Day War"), 40 years after the first volume, from which I learned Hebrew, appeared. The most worrying of all is the readjusting of Israeli society to the state of permanent war. Many Israelis have come to be afraid of peace; they would not know how to live without an enemy waiting to strike and their need to strike first. Young Israelis never came to know a world without guns under beds."

Your grandson, the Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard, is an activist for Palestinian human rights, and in the past was sent to an Israeli military prison after refusing to do reserve duty in Hebron. What is your opinion of his struggle against the occupation?

"Israeli-Arab relations have for many years now been shaped by confrontation between two nationalistic, unscrupulous and trigger-happy extremisms, each trying to out-vie the other in spectacular cruelty. It is 'a war of attrition,' which under closer scrutiny looks more like cooperation between the adversaries, each adding vigor and raison d'etre to the other. This schismogenetic chain has no natural end. It can only be cut. But how? Moral conscience and determination of people like Michael Sfard is one of the answers to that life-or-death question; or part of the answer.

"A year ago I took part in the celebration held in Prague for the 70th birthday of Vaclav Havel, one of the most active and effective intellectuals of the past century. How come Havel left such a powerful trace on the shape of the world we inhabit? Havel is on record stating that 'hope is not a prognostication.' Indeed, hope pays little if any respect to statistics, to pedantically calculated 'trends' and fickle 'majority opinions' of the day. Hope looks and stretches itself, as a rule, beyond today and tomorrow (and even well beyond the next elections). Havel, who almost single-handedly managed to topple one of the most sinister regimes in the Soviet-communist camp, had no bombers, aircraft carriers or smart missiles - all those weapons which (as we are repeatedly told) decide the course of history. He had only three weapons: hope, courage and stubbornness. These are primitive weapons, nothing high-tech about them. And they are the most mundane, common weapons: We all have them, since at least Paleolithic times. Only we use them much too seldom ...

"Michael Sfard uses those three weapons more than most of us - including myself. He is doing what I should and perhaps would have done, if I had his energy, determination and strong will - which, alas, I don't. And as long as there are Michael Sfard and his partners to this struggle among us, we can find succor in Franz Kafka's (a writer not famous for the optimism of his visions) declaration of faith: "If you find nothing in the corridors open the doors, if you find nothing behind these doors there are more floors, and if you find nothing up there, don't worry, just leap up another flight of stairs. As long as you don't stop climbing, the stairs won't end, under your climbing feet they will go on growing upwards" (from "Advocates," translated by Tania and James Stern, in "The Collected Short Stories of Franz Kafka," edited by Nahum N. Glatzer, Penguin Books, 1988).