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Literature and Political Theology

The Political Romance of Clay and Air

“Your clay is the clay of some Litvak shtetl, your air is the air of the steppes.”

This woman. I did not know this woman […] She was… not a person but a whole kind of person, the ones who crossed the ocean, who brought with us to America the villages of Russia and Lithuania–and how we struggled, and how we fought, for the family, for the Jewish home, so that you would not grow up here, in this strange place, in the melting pot where nothing melted. Descendants of this immigrant woman, you do not grow up in America, you and your children and their children with the goyische names. You do not live in America. No such place exists. Your clay is the clay of some Litvak shtetl, your air is the air of the steppes–because she carried the old world on her back across the ocean, in a boat, and she put it down on grand Concourse Avenue, or in Flatbush, and she worked that earth into your bones, and you pass it to your children, this ancient, ancient culture and home.

Tony Kushner, Angels in America (1:22 to the end)

The Golem and the Jinni (2013), and its sequel The Hidden Palace (2021), are, among other things, an interracial love story. Through the use of the mythic figures of the Golem and the Jinni as representatives of their respective immigrant communities, the books outline the possibilities and limits of the American multicultural melting pot. To the extent that American liberalism founds its legitimacy on a claim, however implicit, of multicultural universalism, it is precisely stories of interracial or multiethnic romance which are key to sustaining such legitimation in the imagination of the general public. Romance in general, and this romance in particular, are thus key arenas of political action.

This reading of romance is sharply at odds with the political theory of Hannah Arendt, who takes the divide between public and private life as the most basic and inviolable structure of human life. For Arendt, love is a private emotion, dangerous to the political: “the world” (which in Arendt’s lexicon refers to the shared conceptual space in which politics, the work of creating and sustaining human commonality, occurs) “goes up in the flames” (The Promise of Politics, 202; see also The Human Condition, 242).

At the same time, Arendt’s vision of politics assumes that political subjects are united by a common humanity; her thought is frustrating precisely in its refusal to attend to ethnic difference as a topic of concern for political theory, even as her own biography suggests she might have been conscious of this. While I have no wish to dispute the extent to which antiblackness shaped Arendt’s thought, at least part of its expression, particularly in her later work, depends upon her understanding of the public/private divide. It is precisely this understanding which she appealed to when developing her infamous equation of American racism with social discrimination in “Reflections on Little Rock.” Indeed, part of her argument in “Reflections on Little Rock” is that laws prohibiting miscegenation—which she reads as an unwarranted intrusion of public interest into private life—are a much greater concern than school segregation or discrimination in housing or employment, which she views as part of the social sphere—a space of voluntary association, not as private as the family sphere, but neither truly part of the public sphere. The combination of a refusal to consider racism as a political, rather than social, issue together with a refusal to consider the interactions between the private and public spheres led Arendt to conclusions as obscene as they are incorrect.

In this essay, I will make use of the interracial romance of the Golem and the Jinni as a way into a closer interrogation of Arendt’s sharply bracketed construction of the public political subject, uncovering the ways that the private and political spheres necessarily co-construct one another. Far from being a private emotion that sends the world up in flames, love is the foundation of the intersubjectivity on which the world as such depends. Within the narrative world of The Golem and the Jinni, it is precisely the deeply personal aspect of love which enables and motivates those who partake of it to take account of a subjectivity that is sharply different from their own, and to thereby expand their understanding of the range of “human” experiences united within the political sphere.

The fact that the two protagonists are precisely not human, not “person[s] but a whole kind of person” (Angels in America, 9-10), mythological beings whose existence is itself a reification of the cultures from which they originate—Chava from the clay of some Litvak shtetl, Ahmad from the air of the Syrian desert—creates a tension between their role as individual protagonists, with unique life histories and emotive landscapes, and their narrative function as symbols of the ethnic communities from which their mythologies are drawn. Their story is their story, but it is also a story about the possibilities and limitations of understanding, solidarity, and love between different communities of immigrants who initially have little in common beyond the simple fact of their immigration.

Both The Golem and the Jinni and its sequel, The Hidden Palace, focus on Chava and Ahmad’s struggle to negotiate their relationship in light of their divergent understandings of the world and their place in it. An early conversation between them is characteristic of this divergence, in which Chava attempts to imagine Ahmad’s description of his ideal life:

It felt terrifying. She said, ‘I don’t think golems are made for such independence.”
“You only say that because you’ve lived no other way.”
She shook her head. “You misunderstand me. Each golem is built to serve a master. When I woke, I was already bound to mine. To his will. I heard his every thought, and I obeyed with no hesitation.”
“That’s terrible,” the Jinni said.
“To you, perhaps. To me it felt like the way things were meant to be […] If I were as independent as you wish you were, I’d feel I had no purpose at all.”
He frowned. “Were you so happy, to be ruled by another?”
“Happy is not the word,” she said. “It felt right.”

The Golem and the Jinni, 339-340

What we see here is not just mutual incomprehension, as each attempts to articulate their understanding of the world to an audience who lacks any common point of reference for their experience. We see the attempt of each to reach beyond that incomprehension, scrabbling for a conceptual anchor that would make possible the continuation of the conversation. And then, as Ahmad locates a point of reference for Chava’s experience in his own past captivity, we see the limitations of the attempt to build sympathy based on perceived commonalities: Ahmad thinks he understands what Chava wants, because he can match it to his own experience, and precisely because of his experience of unwilling subjugation to the will of another he is horrified by her apparent desire for the same.

But Ahmad’s horror reveals something about their individual experiences: while they are similar in terms of their general outline, the different natures and expectations with which Ahmad and Chava approach their situations produce a qualitative difference in the experiences themselves. While both encounter the fact of subjugation to another’s will, Chava’s experience is one of rightness, of behaving in total harmony with her nature and expectations of the world, where Ahmad’s is one of wrongness, of being forced to act against his nature and his will. The mere similarity of their situations is not sufficient to engender sympathetic feeling between them, or even effective communication. They must also appreciate the limitations of their own experiences as a framework for understanding the others with whom they encounter a shared world.

These attempts to enter into the viewpoint of another, to understand the world not just as a space that others happen to inhabit alongside oneself, but as a truly shared space, co-constituted by not only one’s own understanding and consequent action but by the understandings and consequent actions of others, are core to Arendt’s political philosophy of a world shaped by human plurality—and also to her understanding of thinking as the basic human activity. Indeed, it is the inability to consider a viewpoint beyond his own which Arendt saw as Adolf Eichmann’s fundamental failing, from which his other crimes against humanity derived:

The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.

Eichmann in Jerusalem

In the narrative arc of The Golem and the Jinni, Ahmad and Chava come, eventually, to an accord. In part, their lack of commonality with the humans that surround them produces a greater sense of comradeship between them—but to read their story as a record of traversal from difference to a newly discovered similarity, the construction of a private space inhabited by only the two of them, “in which the world goes up in flames” is as much an oversimplification as Arendt’s understanding of love as a purely private, anti-political emotion (The Promise of Politics, 202).

The traversal of Ahmad and Chava’s dissimilarity, following the contours of an interracial romance, involves an open examination of all of “the taken-for-granted, tacit background of beliefs, concepts, values, attitudes, and so forth” that constitute their separate cultural backgrounds (Tanner, Theories of Culture, 30-31). In so doing, they learn—as Eichmann never did—to think, and to think from the standpoint of somebody else. Through relationship with one another, then, they each have a more complete encounter with reality as such.

It is perhaps most clear that Ahmad, who, as a djinn, is characterized by his impulsivity and selfishness, struggles to understand the personhood of others. However, Chava’s golem-nature, which is defined by her in-built subservience to the will of others, is an equally potent illustration of the struggle to relate to another as a person in their own right, rather than as a holder of a culturally pre-determined role. Not pre-emptively responding to Ahmad’s desires requires as much restraint for her as it does for him. It requires her to meet him as a person with whom she negotiates within a shared political space, rather than presuming an unspoken agreement born from, and (from her own perspective) legitimated by, her inherent desire to be of service.

The process of falling in love across racial and cultural boundaries is a process of finding words for things which, within one’s own community, would not need to be spoken. It is a process of intense, overt negotiation over shared meaning, in a way that in any other emotive context Arendt would not hesitate to recognize as world-making. There is no politicizing such love, for it is already located firmly and unavoidably within the political sphere.  

The Hidden Palace goes one step further, however, in introducing a jinniyeh (a female djinn) who travels from Syria to meet Ahmad and attempt to draw him back to the life of a free djinn. By presenting Ahmad with the option of returning to a relationship with someone from his own culture, in which such overt negotiation over meaning is not necessary, in which love might well be understood as a private and anti-political emotion, the book highlights the extent to which the political world is dependent on not just the presence of others, but an understanding of their subjectivity as separate from one’s own.

Following a relationship-ending argument with Chava and the death of his friend and business partner Arbeely, Ahmad attempts to close himself away from contact with others and devotes his energy (and his supernatural ability to manipulate fire) to creating a fantastic metal and glass structure within the warehouse: literally attempting to build and inhabit a world without input or interference from others. Even in the early stages of construction, however, Ahmad is aware both of an insufficiency in his creation, and of his own incapacity to correct it:

Something’s missing. The thought prickled at him like fog. He’d forgotten something, it was staring him in the face, and he couldn’t even see it— Chava would know. The thought rose unbidden, but at once he knew it was correct. She would take one look at his imperfect creation, and she’d know.

The Hidden Palace, 334

In this same scene, as well as longing for Chava’s insight, Ahmad also reflects on his inability to connect with the jinniyeh: “Perhaps she was right about him. Perhaps he’d strayed too far from his nature, gone beyond mere difference, and into perversion, obscenity” (HP, 334). The experience of interracial love has taught Ahmad not only that other people see the world differently, but that such difference is necessary, and in so doing has also introduced that element of difference into his dealing with members of his own community.

Ahmad’s attempt to retreat from the space of plurality and fashion his own world is doomed to failure. This is not only because plurality has already transformed him and rendered such a retreat impossible. It is also because the world, per Arendt, is the space of plurality, whose existence is entirely dependent upon its being shared between people. Within the narrative world of The Hidden Palace, this becomes clear when, at the book’s climax, his private world is revealed to a wider audience and literally collapses under the weight of their existence:

I never accounted for the weight of others, of people. Of anything that wasn’t itself. That’s what was missing.

The Hidden Palace, 445.

An entirely private world is no world at all; this is the point that Arendt’s critique of love as an anti-political emotion aimed at, but it is also the reason that her critique misses the mark. We do not live in the world, just as we do not live in America; no such places exist, except insofar as we collaboratively imagine them into being. Because the political world, as a space of plurality, both enables and is constituted by the experience of encounter with others, the depth and quality of such experience is essential to the creation and maintenance of that world. Who we love, and how we love them, are unavoidably political choices. They condition the traces of ourselves that we leave behind, the world that we create for others to inherit (The Human Condition, 247). Love may indeed be dangerous to certain political programmes—and a politics which can only maintain itself via a stranglehold on the emotive lives of its participants is a dangerous politics indeed—but Arendt was wrong to consider it dangerous to politics as such.

The American Fantasy: Gender, Work, and Freedom in The Golem and the Jinni

“I was only imagining it. Being freed.”

Fantasy and the Prophetic: A Response to The Golem and Jinni

“Dreams come true, in fantasy novels and in prophecy”

The Political Romance of Clay and Air

“Your clay is the clay of some Litvak shtetl, your air is the air of the steppes.”

Intimate Association Beyond Secular Time

“I am the sum total of a thousand years of misery and striving! You may have given us this broken immortality, but I will be the first to die without fear!”

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