Thank God, We’re Assimilated
By Yehoshua Sobol | 29/10/2009
Without absorption and assimilation, in the positive, erotic sense of the words, culture and creativity cannot truly exist. Only those who are unsure of their identity and the power of their culture fear assimilation and cultivate a defeatist posture of isolationism. Yehoshua Sobol attacks the negative meaning of the concept of assimilation in Jewish discourse.
To exist and thrive, a plant must absorb carbon dioxide, which it takes in from the surrounding air, and water, which it draws from the ground in which it grows. Using the sun's energy, it breaks down these compounds to their basic elements to reassemble from them the carbohydrates that it uses to build its tissues. Animals too, which include all humans, would not survive if they did not absorb into their bodies the food that they ingested.
Assimilation is the absorption or merging of something into an entity different from itself, through which that entity exists and builds itself. If, out of fear for their purity, plants would decide to stop absorbing this gas, that is, carbon dioxide, which is so foreign to them, the plant world would cease to exist, and in its wake, all living things would vanish from the face of the earth. The absorption of the foreign and the different lies at the foundation of life. A failure in the absorptive capacity of plants and animals is a pathological phenomenon that culminates in the death of the organism that lost this ability.
Just as absorption is vital to the existence of life, so too is reproduction crucial to perpetuating the species. But the act of reproduction also entails assimilating with another, and absorbing one individual's genetic material into that of the other. For those of you who haven't heard yet, now is the time to reveal that to engage in reproduction, two people must bring their bodies so close together that there is a merging of these two “foreign” entities and their bodily fluids. To encourage us to get close enough that our bodies join and our fluids mingle—an act whose power the spirit cannot begin to comprehend—our biochemistry has instilled in us the unique quality of being attracted to another's body, of desiring its nearness, of longing to be absorbed in it and to merge with it.
This tremendous life force that attracts our bodies to one another is the power of the erotic. Young, healthy beings are awash in erotic forces that drive them to seek intimacy with another, filling them with a profound desire to open up to and merge with that person, whom they love and yearn for as the air that they breathe.
There are pathological states in which the erotic force fades and is ultimately extinguished, supplanted in the ailing soul by disgust toward the other, repulsion, and loathing to the point of identifying him with impurity. When a person relates to his partner as a defiling force, this is symptomatic of severe mental illness. Erotic behavior, which is steeped in pleasure and enjoyment of life, is replaced by the neurotic behavior of withdrawal and defensiveness, to the point of withering away and losing all interest in life. In place of an erotic life instinct, we have a neurotic death instinct that drives us to acts of self-destruction toward our partners and ourselves.
What holds true with regard to the lives of individuals applies also to groups, nations, and cultures. In the cultural life of a nation, there are erotic times and neurotic ones. When a nation's culture is fresh and full of the forces of life and the impulse to “be fruitful and multiply,” it is in an erotic phase. In such a state, it displays infinite curiosity toward other cultures; it is attracted to them, and attracts them to it with powerful forces; it longs to be close to them, and yearns to open up to them and to assimilate and merge with them in moments of great fecundity, which are the most wondrous seasons of any living culture. It does not fear the material flowing into it from other cultures with which it has contact, since its erotic power grants it great confidence in itself and in its ability to successfully assimilate what it absorbs from them.
In neurotic periods, by contrast, a nation's culture is struck by revulsion and loathing toward other cultures; in its great fear, it closes itself off from them and takes upon itself strictures whose purpose is to sever all contact with the “other,” the foreign, who are seen by it as impure and defiling. When you encounter a culture preoccupied with the laws of “impurity of foreigners,” be aware that you are dealing with a neurotic culture in which self-destructive forces have been unleashed that will drive its members to ruin.
The German example
Modern history is replete with examples of cultures that shifted from the erotic phase, during which they evolved, to the neurotic state, where they degenerated. For purposes of this discussion, it suffices to consider the German and Anglo-American cultures of the 19th and 20th centuries, and their treatment of the ultimate “other,” namely, the eternal Jew. Over the course of the 19th century, the Jews living in Germany's linguistic and cultural territory were granted emancipation; gradually, the gates of universities and research institutes, and the seats of German creativity and culture, were opened to members of the Jewish culture. Concurrent with this openness on the part of German culture, there awakened among the Jews a fierce desire to assimilate the values of this other culture and merge them with their own, which was based on learning, spirituality, and veneration of the religious scholar who strove to go as far as his piercing intellect and conceptual ability could take him. The product of this erotic encounter was an unparalleled flowering of culture, science, and art in German's cultural territory. In the first two decades of the 20th century Berlin and Vienna were poised to become the Rome and Athens of the modern era.
But as the result of disastrous historical events that brought the nationalistic Right into power, German culture entered an extreme neurotic state. A classic example of this sickness is what happened to the leading German philosopher of the time, Martin Heidegger. In the infamous dean's address delivered by him in 1935, Heidegger linked the task of the German university with the purpose of the German people that identifies itself with the German nation-state. In so doing, Heidegger issued the academic stamp of approval for the expulsion of Jewish intellectuals from German academia. The rise of Nazi ideology put an end to the merging of German culture and spirit into other cultures, and marked the death of Germany's ability to absorb in turn.
The consequences were not long in coming. Vast numbers of Jewish intellectuals—beneficiaries of the same German culture that had earlier taken them in and now vomited them from its midst—quit the German cultural territory that they had so enriched in its erotic period. And where did they go? They flocked to the open arms of Anglo-American culture, which was at the dawn of a great erotic phase: It opened before them universities, research institutes, and centers of art and creative endeavor; it invited them to teach, research, develop, and create to the best of their ability, while granting them whatever it had to give and eagerly receiving whatever they had to offer, from the Gestalt therapy of Fritz Perls to Einstein's seminars at Princeton, from the music of Kurt Weill to the movies of Billy Wilder, and the creative power that the immigrant artists and writers who settled in Manhattan and Beverly Hills brought with them.
While Vienna and Berlin, caught up in a frenzy of purification from foreign contamination, became the Sodom and Gomorra of the mid-20th century— and the years of purism and negation of assimilation opened a gaping hole in the history of German culture—London, Birmingham, Oxford, New York, Princeton, New Haven, Boston, and Los Angeles became the cultural, scientific, and artistic capitals of that era. And this is largely because they knew how to assimilate and absorb the foreigner and the “other,” and everything good and beautiful and smart and wise that he brought with him from his cultural world, which was different from theirs. America, which took the Jewish scientists, artists, and intellectuals, and the anti-Nazi German exiles, to its bosom, would not be the same America after assimilating them and absorbing their contribution: it would be richer, more fascinating, more appealing than before they came.
But why have we said all this? The point is to counter the negative meaning attached to the concept of “assimilation” in neurotic Jewish discourse, which utterly rejects the stranger and sees the “other” as an impure element absorbed into the Jewish nation. This is in contrast to erotic Jewish discourse, which embraces the stranger and wishes to blend foreign influences with Jewish ones, which says to the “other”: “And you shall love your neighbor…, and the rest, go and learn.”
So we here, in these dark times—have we assimilated? Or should we discard musical culture as it sounds after Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg? Should we cast out science as it looks after the “assimilated” Einstein? Perhaps we should banish philosophy as it appears after Spinoza, Husserl, Bergson, Wittgenstein, and Derrida? How would we look had we not assimilated all this bounty conveyed to us by Jews and non-Jews who absorbed and merged and intermingled in the tumultuous events that struck culture and science in their finest hour? How would our literature look had our writers kept their distance from Proust and Kafka, who assimilated into French and German culture, respectively? How would our theater look, had we declared Brecht and Beckett and Ionesco impure foreigners?
Not long ago, we had the opportunity to see what happens to a culture that enters wholeheartedly into the neurotic phase, imposes absolute purism on itself, and denounces any sign of assimilation and intermingling as a sin deserving of stoning. The reference is to the era of Taliban rule in Afghanistan. In their abhorrence and fear of assimilation, they outlawed the literature of foreigners, their music, their films, their language, their culture, until they reached the point of demolishing statues of Buddha. When cultures enter the neurotic phase, and take on the dictates of purism, they sentence themselves to decline and destruction. Jews, on the other hand, have always been noted for their great inquisitiveness and ability to assimilate; this has been a blessing to their culture and the cultures of their host nations, with both “sides” entering an erotic phase in their relationship and opening themselves up to mutual assimilation and “cross-fertilization.”
But what can we say about Israel's young culture, the headstrong heir to the culture of the pre-State years? Are we assimilated? Yes, thank God—and how! Our academic community is open to the flow of ideas, without scrutinizing their ethnic origins; so too, our creative and spiritual life. Hebrew song—which developed in Israel with the renewed Jewish presence and the revival of the Hebrew language in the past century, and which we have recently been revisiting with such nostalgia—drew heavily from Russian song, mingling it with Hassidic melodies and blending them successfully into the pre-State genre that was so unique and unmistakable. And can we even imagine Israeli literature, the plastic arts, theater, and film without the intense assimilation of developments in these fields in Europe and the U.S.? Tens of thousands of our young people identify with the tunes and lyrics of Israeli rock and pop, finding expression in them for their feelings and their emerging identity, and experiencing a connection and solidarity with this difficult, crisis-laden time and place. Could this genre exist without ties to the world scene?
Without absorption and assimilation in the positive, erotic sense of these words, culture and creativity cannot truly exist. Only those who are unsure of their identity and the power of their culture fear assimilation and develop a defeatist posture of cultural isolation and purism. Life energies will break down any wall of self-imposed seclusion and flow to the site of the erotic act of cultures drawing so close that they reach the point of intimate contact, of mutual intermingling, of free flow between them, and of fruitful life processes that generate fresh growth and creativity.
Yehoshua Sobol is a playwright and author.