24 February 2009

Ironies of Boycotts (Again)

I have repeatedly expressed my opposition to those who advocate a cultural and academic as well as an economic boycott of Israel [1] [2] [3] [4]. I think such calls cast us as consumers rather than citizens. And I think there are other, better, political alternatives - like pressuring the U.S. government to cease supporting Israeli aggression or offering direct support to Israeli peace activists [5] [6] [7] [8]. But there are other ways too. For instance direct, critical engagement with the Israelis.

At the 24th Jerusalem International Book Fair last week Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami was awarded this year's Jerusalem Prize. According to the organizers: "Since 1963 the Jerusalem Prize has been awarded within the framework of the International Book Fair to authors whose writings have expressed the idea of the individual’s freedom in society. It is regarded as one of the most prestigious of international literary awards." Murakami took the opportunity to speak directly and quite critically to his Israeli hosts. In so doing he offers a standing alternative to the sorts of boycott that many on the left are pushing.

Always on the side of the egg*
By Haruki Murakami
(22 February 09)

"I have come to Jerusalem today as a novelist, which is to say as a professional spinner of lies.

Of course, novelists are not the only ones who tell lies. Politicians do it, too, as we all know. Diplomats and military men tell their own kinds of lies on occasion, as do used car salesmen, butchers and builders. The lies of novelists differ from others, however, in that no one criticizes the novelist as immoral for telling them. Indeed, the bigger and better his lies and the more ingeniously he creates them, the more he is likely to be praised by the public and the critics. Why should that be?

My answer would be this: Namely, that by telling skillful lies - which is to say, by making up fictions that appear to be true - the novelist can bring a truth out to a new location and shine a new light on it. In most cases, it is virtually impossible to grasp a truth in its original form and depict it accurately. This is why we try to grab its tail by luring the truth from its hiding place, transferring it to a fictional location, and replacing it with a fictional form. In order to accomplish this, however, we first have to clarify where the truth lies within us. This is an important qualification for making up good lies.

Today, however, I have no intention of lying. I will try to be as honest as I can. There are a few days in the year when I do not engage in telling lies, and today happens to be one of them.

So let me tell you the truth. A fair number of people advised me not to come here to accept the Jerusalem Prize. Some even warned me they would instigate a boycott of my books if I came.

The reason for this, of course, was the fierce battle that was raging in Gaza. The UN reported that more than a thousand people had lost their lives in the blockaded Gaza City, many of them unarmed citizens - children and old people.

Any number of times after receiving notice of the award, I asked myself whether traveling to Israel at a time like this and accepting a literary prize was the proper thing to do, whether this would create the impression that I supported one side in the conflict, that I endorsed the policies of a nation that chose to unleash its overwhelming military power. This is an impression, of course, that I would not wish to give. I do not approve of any war, and I do not support any nation. Neither, of course, do I wish to see my books subjected to a boycott.

Finally, however, after careful consideration, I made up my mind to come here. One reason for my decision was that all too many people advised me not to do it. Perhaps, like many other novelists, I tend to do the exact opposite of what I am told. If people are telling me - and especially if they are warning me - "don't go there," "don't do that," I tend to want to "go there" and "do that." It's in my nature, you might say, as a novelist. Novelists are a special breed. They cannot genuinely trust anything they have not seen with their own eyes or touched with their own hands.

And that is why I am here. I chose to come here rather than stay away. I chose to see for myself rather than not to see. I chose to speak to you rather than to say nothing.

This is not to say that I am here to deliver a political message. To make judgments about right and wrong is one of the novelist's most important duties, of course.

It is left to each writer, however, to decide upon the form in which he or she will convey those judgments to others. I myself prefer to transform them into stories - stories that tend toward the surreal. Which is why I do not intend to stand before you today delivering a direct political message.

Please do, however, allow me to deliver one very personal message. It is something that I always keep in mind while I am writing fiction. I have never gone so far as to write it on a piece of paper and paste it to the wall: Rather, it is carved into the wall of my mind, and it goes something like this:

"Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg."

Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will decide. If there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?

What is the meaning of this metaphor? In some cases, it is all too simple and clear. Bombers and tanks and rockets and white phosphorus shells are that high, solid wall. The eggs are the unarmed civilians who are crushed and burned and shot by them. This is one meaning of the metaphor.

This is not all, though. It carries a deeper meaning. Think of it this way. Each of us is, more or less, an egg. Each of us is a unique, irreplaceable soul enclosed in a fragile shell. This is true of me, and it is true of each of you. And each of us, to a greater or lesser degree, is confronting a high, solid wall. The wall has a name: It is The System. The System is supposed to protect us, but sometimes it takes on a life of its own, and then it begins to kill us and cause us to kill others - coldly, efficiently, systematically.

I have only one reason to write novels, and that is to bring the dignity of the individual soul to the surface and shine a light upon it. The purpose of a story is to sound an alarm, to keep a light trained on The System in order to prevent it from tangling our souls in its web and demeaning them. I fully believe it is the novelist's job to keep trying to clarify the uniqueness of each individual soul by writing stories - stories of life and death, stories of love, stories that make people cry and quake with fear and shake with laughter. This is why we go on, day after day, concocting fictions with utter seriousness.

My father died last year at the age of 90. He was a retired teacher and a part-time Buddhist priest. When he was in graduate school, he was drafted into the army and sent to fight in China. As a child born after the war, I used to see him every morning before breakfast offering up long, deeply-felt prayers at the Buddhist altar in our house. One time I asked him why he did this, and he told me he was praying for the people who had died in the war.

He was praying for all the people who died, he said, both ally and enemy alike. Staring at his back as he knelt at the altar, I seemed to feel the shadow of death hovering around him.

My father died, and with him he took his memories, memories that I can never know. But the presence of death that lurked about him remains in my own memory. It is one of the few things I carry on from him, and one of the most important.

I have only one thing I hope to convey to you today. We are all human beings, individuals transcending nationality and race and religion, fragile eggs faced with a solid wall called The System. To all appearances, we have no hope of winning. The wall is too high, too strong - and too cold. If we have any hope of victory at all, it will have to come from our believing in the utter uniqueness and irreplaceability of our own and others' souls and from the warmth we gain by joining souls together.

Take a moment to think about this. Each of us possesses a tangible, living soul. The System has no such thing. We must not allow The System to exploit us. We must not allow The System to take on a life of its own. The System did not make us: We made The System.

That is all I have to say to you.

I am grateful to have been awarded the Jerusalem Prize. I am grateful that my books are being read by people in many parts of the world. And I am glad to have had the opportunity to speak to you here today.
Had Murakami heeded the calls to boycott Israel, we'd not have this forthright statement. It raises the question of effectiveness and of what counts as political success. But that is something about which I have written here also. Look it up.
* The essay is published under a different title - "The Novelist in Wartime" - here at Salon.com.

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Blogger josean said...

I think a boycottt against Israel is not a very practical idea, although IMHO that country deserves a real boycott, one imposed by the UN. Just like they did to reactionary and criminal South Africa. It worked. Similar countries, both.
But I find hard to believe that you enthuse so much about a bland piece of self congratulatory speech. I would say that Murakami's speech is childish and out of the point completely. Just about abybody can identify with his metaphors. Ain't we all eggs that crash against huge walls? Even the cruelest of the Zionist hangmen in the audience would be comforted by such a piece of rethoric. I am sure he thinks of himself as an egg crashed by a system that doesn't really understand him or his peers.
Murakami's System is a fabrication. It doesn't exist. Political parties do exist, as do armys, ruling classes, countries, racism, victims, dispossesed people, etc. He presents it as something completely alien to everybody in the audience, a fixture, hey here is an egg, there is a wall... I am afraid that his Isralei audience wasn't outraged at all, I am sure he became very popular with them. I am absolutely sure that his concoction of eggs, walls and systems did not open a single mind that night.
Just in case, I don't wanna judge Murakami for accepting the price, for going there or even for giving such speech. His life, he handles it as he seems fit. I will continue to buy his books.
But I can't avoid feeling a strong admiration for activists that have a deeper understanding of the situation and try to have it changed, even if their ideas are unpractical and rarely work. If I remember well the first activists that proposed a strike found themselves confronted by people who offered the same arguments you use today... Didn't they? And in the end, strikes worked. Don't think Murakami would have gotten the same results with his wall and egg metaphors... What Israel is doing is fundamentally, unnacceptably wrong and evil. It must be stopped. I doubt the Murakamis of this world mean a difference in that fight.

24 February, 2009 19:35  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


Thanks for writing.

First, in dealing with the Israelis it is, I think, crucially important to impress upon them that in the current confrontation with the Palestinians they are not the oppressed underdogs. I think Murakami's remarks do just that. The point is to deprive the committed Zionist to whom you refer of the rhetorical resources he uses to rationalize politically and economically condemnable actions.

Second, I think it is important to call the Israelis on specific offenses - Murakami refers to the use of white phosphorus and the "wall" is not simply a metaphor. His criticisms are quite specific not just abstract or metaphorical.

Third, in general, I think it is crucial for writers to use such forums to speak out on important issues. And I think it is important that, in this instance, Murakami made it quite clear that the Israelis cannot use the book fair as a civilized patina to cover up highly objectionable policies.

Finally, I do not think Murakami himself can do much to prevent Israeli military offensives. He has condemned them. But a boycott by academics and artists will do nothing wither. So the comparison to strikers, who can actively shut down and economic enterprise or a state,is off base. If there were a chance of doing that I might well support it. Strikers, by the way,are producers not consumers. And the boycott equates activism with consumption. The proposed boycott lets American and European leftists feel like they are doing something - and hence feel morally superior - when they are sitting comfortably at home. There is no other action being taken.


24 February, 2009 22:10  
Blogger Dawei_in_Beijing said...

Israel and the Jews may not be the egg in this conflict, but they have been the egg all throughout history, and, in my opinion, would easily become the egg again without their robust security policies.

I also think any comparisons to South Africa are way off base. These two circumstances couldn't be any more different.

Thanks for posting this, Jim. I enjoy Murakami books quite a bit.

24 February, 2009 22:25  

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