Friday, February 20, 2009

The Egg and the Wall

"It is our duty as human beings: to put the egg together again. For each of us, sir, is Humpty Dumpty. And to help him is to help ourselves."
-Paul Auster

This week, Haruki Murakami received the Jerusalem Prize in literature. His speech was directed at those who advised him not to come to accept this Israeli honor while the Palestinian wound from the Gaza massacre remains open. His reply was as follows:

"Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg."

Yes, he said, “the egg” in this metaphor could be the unarmed Palestinian civilians who were crushed by the ruthless Israeli army machine, which is “the wall.” But there is, he told the audience of Israeli dignitaries, another, deeper, way to interpret this metaphor:

“Each of us is a unique, irreplaceable soul enclosed in a fragile shell. This is true of me, and it is true of each of you. And each of us, to a greater or lesser degree, is confronting a high, solid wall. The wall has a name: It is The System. The System is supposed to protect us, but sometimes it takes on a life of its own, and then it begins to kill us and cause us to kill others -- coldly, efficiently, systematically.”

But what is this wall, this “System,” other than the various apparatuses that try to capture our lives, which Murakami sees as a fragile egg? And what happens when an egg becomes a part of the wall? One way to deal with these and other related questions lies in the origin of this metaphor: the nursery rhyme about Humpty-Dumpty who “sat on a wall” and “had a great fall,” which “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” did not have the power to amend (notice that the rhyme is essentially a riddle, since it nowhere mentions that Humpty-Dumpty is an egg).

Those who are familiar with the writings of Giorgio Agamben sometimes get the feeling that he envisions the members of the coming community as if they were Humpty-Dumptys, sitting on a wall that divides two opposing realms. In Agamben’s terminology, this wall is called a “threshold,” or a “zone of indistinction,” and the two realms are whatever bipolar division our tradition posits: political life and biological life, culture and nature, the universal and the particular, man and animal, et cetera. Agamben seems to think that instead of choosing one side, or canceling the dualism altogether, our proper place is Humpty-Dumpty’s place: to sit on a wall, and hence to prepare for the great fall.

Asked about this perilous condition, Agamben replied after a short moment of hesitation: “Yes, but Humpty-Dumpty does not break!” This is certainly wrong if the nursery rhyme is considered. But in Lewis Caroll’s retelling of the story this is indeed what happens (or rather, does not happen): Alice has a long and lovely conversation with Humpty-Dumpty, but at the end of the chapter the egg remains intact, as Alice proceeds to her next adventure.

Even though Alice, like every English child of her generation, knows the nursery rhyme by heart, she admits that the last line of this little poem, which predicts the seemingly inevitable downfall of this curious egg-person, is “almost too long.” On the ground of the above considerations, it seems that this riddle-in-rhyme could be rewritten for our times as follows:

Humpty-Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty-Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t make Humpty-Dumpty fall again.

1 comment:

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