by Joan Harvey
Somewhere on an island with sun and shade, in the midst of peace, security and happiness, I would in the end be indifferent to whether I was or was not Jewish. But here and now I cannot be anything else. Nor do I want to be. —Mihail Sebastian
Fascism is what happens when people try to ignore the complications. —Yuval Harari
These days, even in the somewhat remote hills where I dwell, near a very liberal, and mostly white town, one thinks often about the possibility of living soon in an authoritarian state. And this possibility becomes impossible to separate from the idea of identity—who is most at risk? Probably not me. But certainly many immigrants are already or could be in danger, whether Mexican or Muslim. Identity, as in the quote from Mihail Sebastian above, becomes an issue when it is forced on one. And, tangled up with identity is the difficult issue of identity politics, which is driving the right in a negative way, and splitting the left.
In his book The People vs Democracy, Yascha Mounk quotes sociologist Adia Harvey Wingfield: “In most social interactions whites get to be seen as individuals. Racial minorities, by contrast, become aware from a young age that people will often judge them as members of their group, and treat them in accordance with the (usually negative) stereotypes attached to that group.” (Mounk, 2018, p. 202) Perhaps that is why one book keeps leaping to mind during these times, Mihail Sebastian’s Journal: 1935-1944, though it was written in very different circumstances. Radu Ioanid in his introduction writes: “One of Sebastian’s fundamental choices was to consider himself a Romanian rather than a Jew, a natural decision for one whose spirit and intellectual production belonged to Romanian culture. He soon discovered with surprise and pain that this was an illusion: both his intellectual benefactor and his friends ultimately rejected him only because he was Jewish.” (Sebastian, 2000, p. xii)
When the entries in this journal begin, Sebastian is in his late twenties. His life is full of literary feuds, theater going, agonies over his work, women chasing him and women he chases, and his passion for music, music, music. There are Mozart sonatas on the radio, plans to go skiing, lovely descriptions of his “amatory sufferings,” intelligent reading of Proust. He often meets and dines and parties with friends. But as the Germans pick up steam, the anti-Semites in Romania are emboldened; because he is Jewish he’s no longer allowed to practice law, the plays he writes are not produced, he loses his job with the Writer’s Association, he has no money to pay the rent and soon he’s not allowed to live in his apartment anyhow. Read more »