Sapienism should celebrate – six years and going strong is a cool milestone – but how can I? 2023 has been the worst year ever – for Israel, for Israelis. And being an Israeli in Israel, it’s been, in that respect, the worst year for me too. To say that we are a post-traumatic society would miss the mark; there’s no “post” about it. 2023 turned trauma into a daily deadening reality – national and personal. I once argued that Descartes’s Cogito ergo sum provides evidence, not justification, for human existence; his “therefore” is logical, not teleological. I proposed to complement it with justificatory hope: Dum spiro spero ergo sum (“While I breathe, I hope, and thus exist”). But in 2023, especially after October 7, “I can't breathe” – reminiscent of Covid-19 and BLM – captures far better people’s existential mode and mood.
But that “worst year ever” made Sapienism all the more valuable, at times invaluable, to me. It provided what I sought in it in the first place: a breathing space, rarely safe, but always open – to reflect, alone and with others, on our world. And there were many such cherished moments throughout the year, which made 2023 bearable, and at times, dare I say the obvious: hopeful.
Hope is how my personal 2023 started, dashed midway, a sequence I may have presaged in my lengthiest piece to-date on Art and the Clockwork Heart following the failed cinematic affair of Camille the violinist and Stéphane, a master restorer of violins. Love’s lost but life’s not, I concluded: Camille and I will never forget our Stéphane but we can try to forgive him, and ourselves – for falling for him, for failing him, for playing for him, for being played by him. Love taught us life’s yinyang, even with Stéphane: to truly seek the whole is to see the hole, and its flip side – there’s a sliver of him in us, a sliver of us in him. Healing the heart starts with that. After all, if violin is the least forgiving instrument, what then of human?
Some wildly unusual answers surfaced in my jetlagged musings on two in-flight movies, one boldly asking us to ponder why Orpheus turned around a moment before reuniting, alive, with his beloved Eurydice; the other accompanies Charlotte Salomon, a painter whose gouaches have haunted my imagination since I first saw them, into the underworld that opened beneath her feet, an abyss both political and personal.
But men have their day under the meaningless sun too, as we wondered, with Barbie, whether her mate is Kenough. What happens when existential emptiness takes over Ken, wondering if manliness is meaningless? As it turns out, one thing is certain: horses ain’t enough!
Can AI be enough for us - instead of us? Discussing the possibility that “human beings are soon going to be eclipsed,” I suggested we supplant the Turing test with the Hamlet test: Can A(G)I originate a soliloquy? Can it be suicidal? Stars never eclipse, I concluded, what does eclipse, AI included, never shines.
Humans, French philosopher Simone Weil firmly believed, can and so shine. In the first part of a conversation on Weil, we look for her take on giving, and seeking, attention. Calling “attention deficit” a disorder may get it wrong; in our society, haven’t we turned this deficit into our new world order? Weil’s answer is as radical as can be: we must cultivate attention, taking the perspective of another by engaging passively, effectively eliminating the self.
Can such attention help us fend off a different, dreadful, sort of elimination, when “beautiful moments… are eclipsed by violence”? This is what you may begin to wonder when you live in a place where your nightly play is inferring whether the sound you just heard is fireworks or gunshots, an insidious process that makes the callus grow.
Facing violence and repression, one guest post offers inspiration for revolutionary hope through the perspective of an Egyptian father amidst, and in the wake of, the Arab Spring. Other plumbs the vices of virtue signaling, not least in times of war.
And it is the October 7 war that my mind keeps turning, and returning, to, recalling those bleakest hours when the carnage unfolded while the state institutions of my “high-tech nation,” collapsed before our very eyes, when we watched Leviathan dying in the sands. Dying and leaving us with the darkest odyssey – into the heart of darkness, in our own heart: Can we rise above revenge? Perhaps by turning to communities of Israeli-Arab coexistence, which can grow even closer amidst atrocities, helping us hold fast to everything dear to us.
“I asked God then ‘How can there be peace anywhere on earth if there is not peace in Jerusalem?’” wrote Sinead O’Connor to the 21-year-old Ben-Gvir, who took pride in campaigning against her in 1997 and should bear much responsibility for Israel’s worst year ever, a year that saw the brave O’Connor passing away, living us with many beautiful painsongs.
With 2019 closing, the NYT proudly announced, “This Has Been the Best Year Ever.” We know what happened next (or have we forgotten?). Perhaps, this time, we’ll be fortunate to have the opposite effect: the worst year followed by something so much better?
I hold on to that. Throughout 2023, I found myself, like many Israelis, learning anew our capacity to fight for what’s right. For all its afflictions, 2023 also marks Israeli civil society’s finest hour, and – on October 7 – its baptism of fire. When the state collapsed, the citizens stepped in. We can, and should, trust ourselves more (hence my proposal for referendum, my quandary about our fear of it). 2023 could still become the dark womb from which a better Israel can emerge Together, realizing, as I’ve just been told, that deep humanity weaves the “me” and the “we.”
Cen Long (b.1957), In Pursuit of Light, 2021