Goetz on ageing

Merkur 900 (5/2024)

In Merkur 900: how the myth of Islamic antisemitism serves the apologists of violence; what the concept of dictatorship conceals about democracies; and why Rainald Goetz is trying not to grow cynical with age.

Does antisemitism have roots in Islam? In the 900th edition of Merkur, Manfred Sing looks at the historical evidence and unequivocally says no. Claims to the contrary are refuted by the long history of peaceful coexistence between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East – a history that only came to an end in the first half of the 20th century.

By contrast, European Jews were discriminated against, disenfranchised and expelled from their home countries since Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Anti-Jewish pogroms are a European phenomenon. While massacres and expulsions targeting Jews in the Muslim world did occur occasionally over the centuries, all were local outliers motivated by political rather than religious or ethnic conflict.

Sing looks, for instance, at the notorious case of Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who collaborated with the Nazis. Al-Husseini’s instigation of the Nabi Musa riots in Palestine in 1920 and the first pogrom against Iraqi Jews in 1941 should be seen in the context of burgeoning Palestinian nationalism and its attendant anti-Zionism, and not in terms of the Islamic faith.

Attempts by Hamas and other groups to cast the Prophet himself as a hater of Jews, and the eradication of Jews from the earth as a Muslim imperative, are politically motivated distortions that misrepresent both Muslim and European-Christian history. It is a myth that serves not just the supporters of Islamist violence, but also the apologists of Israel’s war against Gaza.

Dictatorships and democracies

Historian Claudia Gatzka observes how, both in contemporary polemics as well as scholarship, the emergence of dictatorships is frequently treated as following natural laws. A dictatorship appears as inevitable if certain conditions pertain, such as crises, wars, or revolutions. As a result, the historical resilience of democracies disappears from view, as does the question of political agency. The interwar years are a good example of this.

The ‘dictatorship’ label also obscures the assumption of the superiority of liberal democracy. The spectre of dictatorship, whether raised by the left or the right, draws its power from the threat to the ‘normality’ of democracy. But rather than two clearly distinct systems, one good and one bad, societies are more accurately described as a mixture of democratic and dictatorial elements.

Everyone from reactionaries hostile to a diverse society to representatives of the state in western nations tends to operate with implicit definitions that produce ideologically weighted, neat categories. The confusion that this produces – such as when it is claimed that our liberal democracies are dictatorships in disguise – can be, and is, used to foment destabilization.

At the same time, this confusion reflects the reality that things are not clear-cut. Some contemporary historical scholarship is fruitfully blurring the lines between democracy and dictatorship by looking at the lives and perceptions of people living under various systems. This approach, argues Gatzka, can help better understand how tendencies toward more or less freedom are encouraged or thwarted.

Goetz on ageing

Almost forty years after his last appearance in Merkur, 80s/90s cult author Rainald Goetz (Irre, Krieg, Rave) returns with excerpts from his ‘work journal – spring and fall 2019’. Referencing writers and artists from the 17th century to the present who work with the autobiographical form, Goetz in these fragmentary notes seeks to find an ethical position on writing about one’s own life and the real people in it. Early on, he writes: ‘Ruthlessness is not a concept of truth; and being excessively explicit about one’s own drives … is not a good method for understanding oneself and the lot in life one has drawn.’

Goetz faults his mentor, the author Michael Rutschky, for confusing scathing attacks and an attitude of cool detachment with a commitment to authenticity. It is rather benevolence, generosity, and a respect for what cannot and should not be said that drives good art – art of the kind that opens up our perspective on the world and ourselves, rather than closing it down in unrelenting and self-assured judgment.

Goetz’s other recurring concern in these excerpts is ageing. How does the artist handle the decline in the spontaneous freedom of spirit one has as a young person? It takes work and effort to maintain the joy and curiosity in the other that is necessary for understanding and creativity, he writes. The ageing artist must reject the posture of masterfulness and allow themselves to continue to be affected, unsettled and bewildered by the world.

Review by Millay Hyatt

Published 31 May 2024
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

Contributed by Merkur © Eurozine


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