The problem of terrorism has become one for the whole of civil society. Gila Lustiger declares in her book We Are Not Afraid (Notting Hill Editions, 2017) that if we want to come up with efficient answers, nobody can refuse to assume responsibility (p. 109).
Lustiger’s gripping account of recent terrorist attacks in France takes a new narrative form, a Geisteslebenroman, a probing of intellectual life, of shared cultural existence. At first, as I always do, I wondered where the center of the book was. I pondered how it was that my reading became opaque and dreary; I seemed to miss knowing how to see what’s there.
Gradually, I realized I was reading outwardly, trying to find something conclusive that was not there conclusively. It was only when I realized that this book needs to be read like an architect perceives and fits together boards, cladding, joists, and wedges that I could swim deeply in its multifarious constellations of thinking, considering, coming to know.
Not at all unsurprisingly, books that are inconspicuously new force us to see all the more newly. Since effective reading is indeed analogous to the work of an architect, I recognized after several false starts that the pieces of my blueprint were sharply incongruous. And, as I blundered along, I knew with a sudden tingle in my mind that this book was not a list, not an orderly historical account, but that it was a story, and not only a story of those who do it to us, but of us who can do it for ourselves.
First, it seemed to be all about them, the bad people, the terrorists. Then it became about what Lustiger wasn’t able to see until she discovered the beauty of citizenship, of what we, including she, could do. This book develops gently, constantly, in what one could visualize as a narrative rippling of overlapping concentric circles. This sense of movement correlates to the book’s radical shift in perspective from they to we, history to story, fact to thought, others to herself as central. First, however, she had to begin to confront how she knows it all.
I. In the beginning, in anguished outrage, Lustiger became hypnotized by and drawn to the facts, engaged in a quest to acquire complete understanding of the terrorist attacks and for some degree of certainty about its causes. She gives a very thorough history of all the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. She devours all the information she can about the attackers – their names, personal histories, and idiosyncrasies. Early on, she is comforted by this work, saying rather glowingly of her research, “I love lists. They make me feel secure.” (p. 17) She emphasizes this hypnotizing attempt at total objectivity throughout this terrified beginning of what will later become a new understanding: “I wrote as if driven, day and night for six weeks. I was obsessed with gathering information.” (p. 1)
The drive to know what happened in the Bataclan attacks was for many the key aftershock of the incident, a result of “a sickening feeling of helplessness, of being at the mercy of forces we could not control.” (13) A well-known writer, Lustiger felt violated, stripped of control, even of her language: “There are no words. And yet you can’t not go on thinking about it.” (22) By dint of this haunting repetition, it became increasingly clear that she was somehow going an incomplete way, treading water in attempting to release objectively all that they had done.
Ever circulating in Parisian society and ever changing herself, Lustiger suspects that something might be wrong with her one-sided vision of the attackers, the mass of people she readily distances herself from, thinking “they” or “them.” She begins to read international philosophers and, in so doing, recognizes the situation to be more complex. First, as she sees the situation in a new light, she finds that the banlieuesards have been ghettoized, physically separated from the rest of Parisian life; that their terrible unemployment intensified a rampant sense of grievance and exclusion.
As she studies, Lustiger learns to disrespect the government’s futile gestures, which mostly exacerbate a burning sense among those immigrants and children of immigrants of being belittled, disrespected, and neglected. She reads thinkers like Avishai Margalit who concludes, “A society is decent when its institutions do not humiliate people.” (28) She discovers that some of those forced to live in semi-poverty in the banlieues kill not just because of anger at their situation, but because in their inner stagnation killing is a way of getting high, of setting fire to and thus destroying their fixed and frozen lives in their neighborhoods, which are paradoxically not in the more exclusive sections of Paris. The behavior of the Parisian leadership and bureaucracy merely exacerbates the sense of exclusion which stifling thousands of people.
Her philosophical readings give her an immediate gift: She finds glimmers of a sense of reciprocity, of collectivism, which is mostly absent in a Paris clutched by a fear she knows only too intimately. For instance, Marcel Mauss in his study The Gift reports “that in ancient societies it was compulsory to reciprocate a gift with another.” He stresses such reciprocity: “Self-esteem and the respect of others were accorded only to those who could give back something in return, no matter how small.” (41-42) She reads of “a bonding of souls” through sharing items (42). In all these cases, there was proximity, not exclusion; exchanging, not distance.
In what becomes an even more disorienting shock to her as a writer, she discovers that books are not universally respected, that instead they can be experienced as tools of power, used as such in a discriminatory fashion. To her sadness, she finds that between 1966 and 2013, 70 libraries in the banlieues were attacked. Finally, she recognizes that books, libraries, and language had became to many “an instrument of their subordination…another way of fencing them in.” (57)
Soon she recognizes that when people burn these books, they are actually burning us. She cites Macbeth in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera as an example of the irrelevance of books and culture to people who feel hungry and disrespected: “‘You may proclaim, good sirs, your fine philosophy/But till you feed us, right and wrong can wait. Or is it only those who have the money/Can enter in the land of milk and honey?'” (58) She soon recognizes that this burning of books is but another manifestation of the gulf between the average complacent citizen and those who live segregated and angry in the banlieues.
II. As she studies, she gradually turns her attention from seeing them to encountering me, from relying on external fact to cobbling together human anecdotes. Lustiger is discerning that in her secure social position, she is actually, albeit indirectly, a shadowy and complicit part of what has taken place; that she had passively allowed herself to be allied with the “reassuring safety of my middle class,” that she had not recognized her quiescent part in the oppression that had energized the attacks (29). Early on, she fathoms her own culpability, even during the time that she is making those labored lists: “I had to see things for myself in order to work out what it was I hadn’t been told or what, quite simply, I hadn’t been capable of reading or hearing. So I set out to see the terrain for myself.” (43)
While before she was focusing on the outside, on them, she is beginning to face her own inattention, blindness, racism, neglect. And what renders this book so consistently intriguing once you recognize its insistent layers is that she introduces early many of the thinkers who will help her gradually and decisively to turn her understanding around. Quite early on, she praises, among others, Voltaire, Hannah Arendt, Montesquieu, Kafka, Goethe, and Marcel Mauss: “They gave me,” she applauds, “the means and wherewithal to confront reality.” (6) A kaleidoscopic quality enriches the multiple focus of her study, taking it far from being merely an objective account of a one-sided terrorist catastrophe. The fear in her title has many facets.
As she discovers injustice in the bureaucratic and social realms, she increasingly questions herself and the official Left. “With the same blinkered condescension…we paid brief attention to these losers, benefit scroungers and school drop-outs who were down in the suburbs torching the cultural heritage we had so graciously made available to them that they might usefully better themselves…but were we frightened of these Philistines? Not in the least.” (63-64) She faults her earlier objective quests: “I had allowed myself to be distracted by the extent of the violence.” (30)
Incrementally, as the book unwinds, her attention is peppered with unfettered criticism of her blindness, as well as the ironic indifference of the political left. It is noteworthy that Lustiger, in all her current economic comfort, has a family history of profound radicalism: granddaughter of a communist and founder of a kibbutz, daughter of a man who survived two concentration camps and two death marches. By late in the book, after her initially intense objective research into them, she is overwhelmed with heartbreak at “the extent to which the left has lost touch with reality,” unaware of the “true needs of the underdogs.” (90) A sense of impotence seizes her after realizing how she had objectified the various terrorist events, because she discerns how segregated Paris really has allowed itself to become and how limited she has allowed herself to be.
III. Once she identifies this systemic socioeconomic impasse and her own impotence as a woman writer and a Jew, she acknowledges that physical controls or walls can’t quell the wildfires of all this free-floating chaos and anger. Author of six novels, Lustiger finds her answer up close: in thought and language, in reading, in extended essays on what we could call, if we wanted to be fancy, the social condition. As she reads, she encounters this persistent human reality in international writers. She stops trying to complete an objective history of what happened because of them or her own limitations and begins thinking of us together, of citizenship, of how we can withstand this together, not merely in isolated classes or neighborhoods.
Explicitly, during the last fourth of her book but also weaving throughout the whole, I see that I’ve been finding all along a kind of blueprint for an integrated story of the human race, of what I came to name a Geisteslebenroman. Her book moves sinuously, from listing facts, to uncovering a positive story of how we might work together to make something better, or at least how to go ahead without being crippled by fear.
As that initial objective focus dissolves, Lustiger herself takes the center as the main character in this story she’s been writing. This is a radical mind-turning jump from blaming them to trusting the potentials of us and then, hesitantly, of I in a new mutual citizenship. In this process, she literally “unfears” herself.
IV. As she discovers the ironic, culturally subordinating function of libraries and books, she is forced to acknowledge a truth that Joseph Roth found: “They will burn our books, but in their hearts it is us they burn.” (63) Even more consequentially, she sees that “anyone who is so suspicious of culture that they will destroy it…will sooner or later lose the capacity to think critically—the very capacity which makes discovering differences of opinion tolerable, even desirable. For culture and literature invite one to see the world through the eyes of someone else.” (64-65) In other words, the disrespect for books will lead to a disrespect for equality and critical thinking.
In the course of this extensive reading, she gains a new perspective on people in culture and on herself as a citizen. Reading Voltaire’s 1703 Treatise on Tolerance, she responds to statements about the entire human community: “We must all bear with one another, because we are all weak and faltering, we are all subject to change and error.” (66) With her family and friends, she begins to see that she is involved inevitably in everyone else’s actions.
She understands that those in the banlieues had not been given the perhaps luxurious opportunity “to reflect on his own condition human…” (85). Painfully, she acknowledges that she has been fixed in the role of observer, her last novel significantly bearing the title The Guilt of Others. Now, she asks a new question: “How can things possibly work when virtually a whole nation feels like it’s standing on the outside. That’s what I wanted to ask” (100).
Readings of Hannah Arendt and Franz Kafka lead her to respect the values of the 18th century Enlightenment: “Social Enlightenment has failed when people who, for whatever reason, are considered outsiders and are denied equality.” (106) Hannah Arendt helps turn her mind around to consider “assuming responsibility,” to see that “It has become a question for the whole of civil society, if we want to come up with efficient answers, nobody can refuse to assume responsibility.” (109, 120) And then Lustiger aims higher to recognize that one knows Parisians not only by their language, cultural habits and prejudices, but by their unique and active citizenship, that the Parisian “knows how to co-exist with others.” (126)
In a moment of sheer pleasure, she extols the potentials of this citizenship specifically in Paris: The virtue of citizens able “to consider each other as equal is consistently present in Paris.” She turns to applaud the Enlightenment for its conviction “that we are all equal despite our differences.” (126-127) This mental celebration is coupled with an acceptance of eccentricity and oddness: “…and celebrating it joyfully and exuberantly” (127). Thus, conceptually, Lustiger has developed an entirely new sense of reality, of coming together. The stage is set for her to put her learning into effect in the “real” world.
She had been invited to give a talk in Berlin shortly after the Paris attacks. Initially, she had agreed to give a talk based upon a character from the novel she was currently writing. But then she was asked if she could speak of each of the victims of the Bataclan attack, whom she had come to know so intimately in her investigations earlier.
However, when she climbed up distraught onto the Berlin stage, she assumed her true role as character in this her story, and said not a word about the victims. Instead she read the poem “Roman” by Arthur Rimbaud, because it epitomized in her eyes the important thing, “the lightness of being of the young.” (132) Reading this poem there left her in a thoroughly passionate daze and when she found herself with her friend on the street coming upon a young Muslim who was there blindfolded giving away free hugs, Lustiger impulsively and naturally hugged him back.
And thus she concludes her astounding book lighter herself, writing, “The world is drifting well off course at the moment. We shouldn’t allow some arbitrary scruple to hold us back from trying to set it back on course again.” (133) This is a link to Arendt’s earlier conclusion that “every day people ‘nudge’ the world back on course, so that it can go on being our home.” (121)
We Are Not Afraid dramatizes both the imperative need to aim higher as citizens as a collective whole and the existential choices Lustiger made throughout writing her stunning book, most decisively at the end. In a startling, inauspicious blend of fact and introspection, fiction and nonfiction, Lustiger discovers that we do have an alternative: to steer another course together collectively so as to nudge the world along together as citizens. This book is a brilliant modern example of a Geisteslebenroman, a story of the collective cultural life of a people.
© 2018 Linda Chown