Isaac Babel: Anthropologist of the Human Soul and of Human Cruelty

Jan. 23 2018

Reviewing the recent translations of Isaac Babel’s work by Val Vinkour and Boris Drayluk, Gary Saul Morson explains the unique genius of the Soviet Jewish writer who was executed at Stalin’s orders in 1940 at the age of forty-five:

There could hardly have been a more grotesque pairing than a sensitive Jewish intellectual with a brutal Cossack regiment. For [the American critic Lionel] Trilling, this contrast constitutes the central theme of [Babel’s best-known cycle of stories], Red Cavalry, and it is certainly important. But something else is going on. The author approaches the world as an anthropologist, a disinterested spectator recording the odd customs of Cossacks, Jews, Poles, priests, ḥasidic rebbes, camp whores, and every sort of perpetrator or victim of extreme violence. Observing his own reactions as if they were someone else’s, or placing himself in dangerous situations in order to monitor his own emotions, he treats himself as just another specimen of the human condition. In his story “My First Goose,” he wonders at his own taste for violence and its intimate link with sexuality. He has to know everything. . . .

The narrator of Red Cavalry—the war correspondent Vasily Lyutov, a pseudonym Babel himself had used while among the Cossacks—observes everyone anthropologically, even his fellow Jews, as if they were a strange tribe. In the opening story, “Crossing the Zbruch,” he is quartered with a poor Jewish family consisting of a pregnant woman, a man with a covered head asleep against the wall, and two “scraggy necked Jews” who hop about “monkey-fashion.” As if he were disgusted by contact with Jews, Lyutov describes finding in the room assigned to him “turned-out wardrobes, . . . scraps of women’s fur coats on the floor, human excrement, and shards of the hidden dishware Jews use once a year—at Easter.” . . .

Red Cavalry draws on a diary Babel kept in which he expresses horror at the violence committed by Reds, Poles, and partisans alike. Everyone kills Jews, and he asks himself, “Can it be that ours is the century in which they perish?” Like Lyutov, the war correspondent in the stories, Babel clings to a belief in revolution as more than senseless killing, but encounters everywhere “the ineradicable cruelty of human beings.” Several stories are narrations by Bolshevik soldiers who nonchalantly describe their hideous, needless brutality as a fight against “treason” and “counterrevolution.”

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Read more at New York Review of Book

More about: Arts & Culture, Communism, Isaac Babel, Literature, Russia, Soviet Jewry

In Gaza, Israel Must Try to Restore Deterrence While Avoiding War

Oct. 22 2018

Early Wednesday morning, a rocket fired from Gaza landed in the city of Beersheba, striking the courtyard of a home. (The woman who lived there, and her three children, barely escaped.) Israel responded swiftly with airstrikes, and the IDF reported that this weekend was the quietest along the Gaza separation fence since March 30, when the weekly riots there began. Yet some 10,000 Palestinians still gathered at the border, burning tires and throwing stones, grenades, and makeshift explosives at Israeli soldiers on the other side. Meanwhile, writes Eran Lerman, Jerusalem faces a difficult decision about how to proceed:

The smaller terrorist organizations in Gaza—Islamic Jihad, which operates as a satellite of Iran, and radical Sunni groups inspired by Islamic State—are the primary ones that want to ratchet up the violence into a full-scale war. For them, a major war in Gaza could be an opportunity to build themselves up on the ruins of Hamas. It also looks as if Iran, too, has an interest in escalating the situation in Gaza and pulling Israel into a war that will detract from its ability to focus on its main defense activity right now: keeping Iran from digging down in Syria.

The third player consistently working to worsen the situation in Gaza and torpedo Egypt’s efforts to broker a cease-fire is the Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas, for whom—as he once said in Jenin— “the worse things are, the better.” . . .

All of these considerations are counterbalanced, paradoxically, by Hamas’s interest in continuing to dictate the terms of any cease-fire with Israel while refraining from a war, which the Hamas leadership knows would be self-destructive. Its moves to escalate the conflict—arson balloons, breaches of the border fence—have been intentionally selected as ways of taking things to the brink without toppling over into the abyss. . . .

And Israel? A harsh, well-defined blow is vital for it to maintain its mechanism of deterrence. A missile hitting Beersheba is not a trivial occurrence. However, as far as possible, and given the broader considerations of the regional balance of power as well as Israel’s fundamental interest in avoiding a ground war, it would be best to make the most of Egypt’s mediation.

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Read more at Israel Hayom

More about: Gaza Strip, Hamas, Iran, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Security, Palestinian Authority