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  • Inhabiting the Split: Dissident Aspirations in Times of War
  • Louise Bethlehem (bio)

Nadine Gordimer died on July 13, 2014, six days into the war on Gaza that the Israeli government named “Operation Protective Edge.” I met the initial news of her death with something approaching detachment. There were, after all, other losses to mourn. Six days into the war, it had become evident that there would be no rapid cessation of the military assault, unlike the previous Israeli incursion into Gaza, “Pillar of Cloud,” in November 2012. Six days into the war, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz carried reports from Gaza indicating that 121 Palestinians had been killed there since the beginning of the military offensive, 14 of them over the course of the previous Friday night—“the most lethal yet” said Ha’aretz. The Israel Defense Force had already bombed a total of 1,100 targets in Gaza, the newspaper went on to record. 1 Six days into the war, I found myself slow to habituate to the devastation of the built environment in Gaza and of the life it housed; slow to assimilate images of concrete that crumpled improbably; or to reconcile myself with footage of collapsed strata that buried human beings. This devastation—a distinct form of political violence that scholarship terms “urbicide”—seemed already to have assumed proportions which would make the full resumption of civilian life in Gaza impossible for years to come.2 Closer to home, I contemplated an Israeli public sphere obscenely deformed by the killing of Muhammad Abu Khdeir less than two weeks previously. Reports emerged that left-wing demonstrators had been beaten on the streets of Tel Aviv, suggesting that the capacity for civil dissent within Jewish-Israeli society was rapidly becoming yet another casualty of the Occupation on this, the sixth day of the war.3

Despite my preoccupation with the war, thoughts of Nadine Gordimer never quite left me. I had begun to read Gordimer as an adolescent growing up in the same apartheid South Africa whose pathologies she documented so resolutely. Her writing evoked in me a visceral sense of identification. It was to Gordimer that my translator and I turned to contextualize the Hebrew version of my book on apartheid literary culture. We drew on Gordimer’s notoriously mistrustful 1984 review of J.M. Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K to develop the idea of an “emergent allegory.”4 The Israeli political context we argued, following a remark by Gordimer, imbued the act of translation with “a meaning not aimed for by the writer but present once the book is written.”5 Alongside the intuition that the work of grieving Gordimer still awaited me, I felt her death as a kind of summons. What if Gordimer’s legacy were to be understood as the imperative to inhabit a certain type of performativity, I wondered? And what if one of its privileged arenas were pedagogical?

On Tuesday July 15, I met with the team of young researchers working on my project “Apartheid—The Global Itinerary: South African Cultural Formations in Transnational Circulation 1948–1990” funded by the European Research Council. I introduced them to expatriate South African literary scholar Stephen Clingman’s contention that Gordimer wrote from a “split position.”6 Although Gordimer sides with an oppressed black world, Clingman observes, she is compelled to write from her own situation as a white writer divided in essential respects from this constituency. “But if for this reason she cannot write directly for her virtual public,” he points out, “she can at least write towards it, addressing the question of its oppression, the justice of its cause and the eventuality of its triumph.” This eventuality, Clingman stresses, is temporal. “Implicitly,” he continues, “this is also an address to the future […] the moment in which that triumph will be realized.” 7

What had made this leap of empathy possible for Gordimer despite her inhabitation of a deeply segregated society, I mused aloud in conversation with my team? How might such empathy be replicated here, despite the terrible constriction of contemporary Israeli society—a condition exacerbated in times of war? I spoke about the rationality of political traditions in the African...

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