Pen Ultimate / Et in Arcadia Ego

Nahum Barnea is this year's recipient of the prestigious Israel Prize for Journalism, and this week he proved yet again why he deserves it. He has this knack, which at best could be described as sheer poetry, of introducing into public discourse a word that both sums up things as they are, and evokes a wealth of associations and connotations that shed new light on our reality.

The headlines on Yedioth Ahronoth's front-page story last Sunday said it all: "Gaydamak promised, government will deliver - Olmert heard billionaire is to reinforce Sderot, and sprang into action. Barrage of Qassams did not achieve what one Gaydamak did. After offer of NIS 50,000,000 to reinforce Sderot apartments, Olmert sent Peretz to mayor with a promise: Refuse the offer, and we will reinforce ASAP."

Next to this article was Barnea's commentary, headlined "On the way to Arcadia," in which he wrote: "Arcadi wins. Not because he is richer or more generous - because he is quicker and shameless. At the end of the day he will not pay for reinforcing Sderot, the government will. But he did make the point, as he has before, that he can make governmental decisions for the government. It is revolting. The sovereign State of Israel turns before our very eyes into Arcadia. Had the government been doing its job, Gaydamak would not have been able to buy people's hearts. At most he could have bought a soccer team."

Firstly, if the government has the money to fortify the buildings in Sderot, why did it require an entire year, endless barrages of Qassams and one generous oligarch to be convinced to spend it? Second, if Gaydamak has the funds, why did he wait for a whole year's worth of Qassams to be fired from Gaza before offering them? Third, did he actually assume that he could get away with such an offer - because surely the government would not let him be crowned with the "savior's halo" over its own shortcomings? Fourth: What would Arcadi have said if the government had said to him: "You are most welcome to reinforce anything you want" - and then Sderot citizens had made even more demands of him? And lastly: He is not the only one with the dough. The same Yedioth front page proclaimed: "[Yitzhak] Teshuva sells apartment at the Plaza for $50,000,000."

Poetic justice

What is much more interesting (at least to me) is what Barnea suggests is the "Arcadia" we have become - a state whose name is coined from the billionaire's first name. Arcadia (or Arcady/Arcadie) "is a region of Greece in the Peloponnese. Arcadia has its present-day capital at Tripoli. It forms the largest prefecture on the Peloponnesian peninsula. It currently covers about 18 percent of the entire peninsula, pop. 100,611 (2005)," Wikipedia informs us.

But much more interesting is the Arcadia of literature, art and the imagination. Wikipedia again: "Arcadia remained a rustic, secluded area, and its inhabitants became proverbial as primitive herdsmen leading simple pastoral unsophisticated yet happy lives, to the point that Arcadia may refer to some imaginary idyllic paradise, immortalized by Virgil's 'Eclogues.'" There he describes the inscription on Daphnis' grave in Arcadia: "Daphnis, the fields' delight, the shepherds' love, / Renown'd on earth and deifi'd above; / Whose flocks excelled the fairest on the plains, / But less than he himself surpassed the swains."

Italian Jaccopo Sannazaro and Englishman Phillip Sidney depicted Arcadia as a utopian world of bliss and simple beauty. But Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) carried Arcadia's fame further with his two paintings on the same theme. The second one is entitled "Et in Arcadia Ego" (1637-8), echoing the inscription on Daphnis' tomb, which is depicted in the painting as being contemplated by frolicking shepherds. (The painting's formal name is "Les Bergers d'Arcadie" - "The Shepherds of Arcadia.") Poussin based his painting on a poem by Sannazaro, in which the inscription on the tomb of Phyllis who had lived in Arcadia is said to be: "She who always showed herself so haughty and rigid to Meliseo now lies entombed, meek and humble, in this cold stone." The phrase "I am also in Arcadia" (which is just one of many ways, probably wrong, in which the Latin inscription, lacking a verb, can be understood) is supposed to be Death's reminder that even those who live in bliss will end up dead. Anyway, it's all about the Ego.

If Sderot is Arcadia, there is some poetic justice here. Long before Arcadi's sun rose in our firmament, Sderot was seen by some (such as Alex Giladi, one of the architects of commercial TV in Israel) as "the land of the simple people," as embodied by "Mas'uda from Sderot" - the quintessential Israeli TV viewer, with a short attention span and very basic demands as far as the small-screen diet is concerned. Since the 1980s, it seems, all local channels have been catering to the tastes of this hypothetical Mas'uda of Sderot. TV producers simply cannot grasp that those so-called simple viewers from Sderot have more exacting demands than they have. They simple don't get a chance to make them.

There is no doubt, however, that Sderot is the place where basic trust and real naivete reign: Many people have been living there for years, threatened by Qassams from Gaza due to Israeli government actions or inactions, or the simple desire of some factions of Hamas to raise hell. They go on living there, trusting that each of the successive governments will reinforce their houses as they keep promising.

In such a context, the inscription "Et in Arcadia Ego" assumes a particularly ominous ring: In this land of illusions we are being reminded that death awaits us all, no matter who reinforces our houses.

Here is my bet, but I'd be more than happy to be wrong: Sderot will decline Gaydamak's generous offer and will wait for the government to deliver on its promise to reinforce everything - pronto. But that will not happen, due to procedural reasons or maybe a temporary respite in the rocket barrages. Then days, weeks, months (pick one, or all) will pass and the whole farce will start anew. I've been in that Arcadia before.