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"What I Saw Was a High, Gorgeous Pile of Figs"

Obama, Moustaki, and me

The futility of one’s thoughts is no reason not to think them. The truest protest is the involuntary kind, when outrage cannot be suppressed, and the failure of one’s arguments transforms them into obsessions, and one becomes tedious, almost gleefully so, in one’s criticisms and complaints. History disobeys even statesmen and saints, and eventually you wind up making speeches in your head. The other day I was making such a speech about the diminishment of America in the world. I was at the grocery, a few hours after I had read an infuriating piece in the Times about the likelihood that Syria, owing to the unchallenged infiltration into the country of jihadist fighters, “may be developing into one of the biggest terrorists threats in the world today.” Meanwhile nineteen American embassies and consulates around the world were shuttered because of something that Zawahiri was overheard saying to Wuhayshi. Has anyone noticed, I mutely declaimed, that international reality and the president’s picture of international reality are not the same? Bin Laden is dead but Al Qaeda is not. The Taliban is preparing to make fools of us, and a caliphate of Afghanistan, next year. Sectarian atrocities in Pakistan are as regular as the rising sun. Putin thwarts us recreationally. Iranian centrifuges spin and spin and spin. In Egypt, where we have leverage, we appear to have no leverage. The United States, in sum, is now the world’s most powerful spectator. The whole world is not watching. It is we who are watching. And the whole world is watching us watch. Has the United States ever responded so inertly to so many perils and opportunities? And is there an Egyptian, I demanded to know as I pushed my shopping cart around the aisles, or a Syrian, or a Libyan, or an Iranian, or a Tunisian, who can say with certainty where the president of the United States stands on their revolutions? Or an American?

Then my oration was cut short. I turned a corner and eyed something that emptied my head of everything analytical and carried me far away from the universe of public reason. What I saw was a high, gorgeous pile of figs. I was instantly elated. They were the nubile tokens of a distant and different place, and so they had a beckoning quality, and held a small promise of flight. To see them was to see where they had come from, which was not from here; to see where I was and where I was not; to be here and to be there; to be elsewhere. The claims of sensation rose up, right there in the produce section, against the claims of intellection. What a welcome split in a shopper’s consciousness! After all, the view of the sea from Dupont Circle is not very good. And who heard my trenchant speech, anyway? I evaluate the quality of my days by considering the ratio in them of poetry to prose. The prose always abounds—I am in the prose business—and occasionally it flattens me. Arguments do not sing. Reason has a light but not a luminosity. So sometimes I seek a correction. I arrange for the trenchant to give way to the lyrical. I do this by means of objects and images and texts and music—fortuitously encountered, like the figs, but also collected and prepared against these quotidian emergencies—that signify another variety of sustenance and provide a swift transit to what I lack. These are my spirit-transporters. By means of these devices I travel in place. They protect me against what the poet called “despair of wings.”

A few months ago Georges Moustaki died. He was one of my most reliable flight enablers. His voice is for me the very sound of a grown man’s intimacy, of a voluptuary Mediterranean joy that even his infantile leftism could not dispel. Some of his songs remind me of Camus’ early essays on Algeria, perhaps the most sensuous essays ever written. In the early 1970s I saw him at Bobino in Paris and was inducted into the beauties of cosmopolitanism. He was born Giuseppe Mustacchi in 1934 in Alexandria, the son of Greek-speaking, French-speaking, Italian-speaking, Arabic-speaking Jews from Corfu who owned a bookshop that was renowned throughout the Middle East. “Un juif errant, un pâtre grec,” he famously called himself in one of his most moving songs; and the papers reported that he was buried in Père Lachaise according to the Jewish rite, a few yards away from Piaf, for whom as a young man he wrote the everlastingly irritating “Milord.” (I seem to recall that the Jewish section of Père Lachaise is just across the lane from her shiny black tomb. Modigliani and his lover, who threw herself out a window the day after he died, also rest there.) Moustaki thought with his senses. Even his militancy was languid. His music had a tender eroticizing effect, whatever its subject. He made the love of women feel like a part of the struggle for justice. I first heard his records in an old stone house in Abu Tor, overlooking the Valley of Gehenna, or hell, in Jerusalem, the home of a man I adored, the first aesthete I came to know, a charismatic and dissipated scholar and poet and critic and translator (Rochester into Hebrew! Berryman into Hebrew!) who drank himself to his destruction, but not before furnishing me with a close look at the seductive life. With Moustaki as a soundtrack (“notre douleur nous guidera”), he taught me how to read Baudelaire, as Arab shepherds chased stray lambs up the slopes of Mount Zion and we sipped a peculiar wine made in a monastery near Bethlehem. To this day I cannot hear “Le Temps de Vivre” without reviving the view of the desert from my friend’s garden, where the desert is the sea. “Viens, je suis là, je n’attends que toi/Tout est possible, tout est permis.” It is an affecting love song, but it should serve now, when hedonics has replaced hedonism, also as an anthem for an unpublicized and unlogisticized existence, in which hurrying is a sin and lingerers are emulated, and public-spiritedness is matched by private-spiritedness, and one does not measure out one’s life in, say, media convulsions, or surrender most of a decade to the interpretation of a politician. “Nous pourrons rêver notre vie.” It’s not anything I want the Supreme Court to recognize, but every individual has a right to enchantment.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.