by Mordechai Zalmen
When I was in college I saw a performance of Bretch’s Mother Courage and Her Children. I remember my first reaction was disgust. What the fuck is this nonsense about? Why was the child named Swiss Cheese? Why was Mother Courage so mean, yet so likable at the same time? Is this what modern theater is, this absurdity?
But, as any budding Bretch fan experiences, that initial repulsion eventually evolves into a nagging curiosity. You begin to start churning out attempts at answers to those questions in your mind. Perhaps naming a character Swiss Cheese is poking holes at the empty moral stance of “neutrality” on matters of warfare and injustice for which the Swiss are so famous? Maybe Mother Courage is both repulsive and lovable because that’s the way real humans are, both repulsive and lovable? Maybe the play is absurd because the war(s) which it is about are even more absurd than it?
Soon, if you let yourself, you start to go back to the text of the play, or see another performance, or seek out more of Bretch’s work to confirm or inform or enlighten or test your internal responses to these questions. You get over the repulsion and then you start to see the humor. After you see the humor, you start to get the point. War and militarism and violent domination are repulsive and absurd phenomenons of human cultures. Any serious work of art about these topics must also be absurd and repulsive, at least initially.
I initially had the same reaction to my first encounters with Beacon-based artist Ori Alon’s postage stamp comics. Hilter in a kippa saying the Shema (the most important Jewish prayer). Blasphemy! Stalin singing an R.E.M song in duet with other horrendous dictators. What the fuck is this nonsense about?
But keep reading, as I did with the newest edition of these odd little postage stamp comics, Checkpoint Charlie, and Stalin starts answering some of your questions for you. “At times I find Ori’s work to be very annoying, disrespectful, and righteous, especially when he forces me to have long discussions with Hitler. However, I respect his right for free speech and I enjoy his humor, occasionally.”
So, then you start to laugh. American astronauts land on the moon, look around and ask in fearful whisper, “Do you see any terrorists?” You read a page long treatise on how Ori and his completely fake organization, the Center for Supportive Bureaucracy, struggled with how to deal with having once issued a friendly Forgiver’s License to a local congressman and then in a fit of rage revoked the congressman’s unasked for fake license, but then back-tracked after deciding that a fake organization doesn’t actually have the right to revoke someone else’s license to forgive.
You laugh at the absurdity of Ori’s fake bureaucracy, and the artist’s internal moralizing on the rightness or wrongness of his meaningless art piece, until you contrast it with the real behavior of the congressman at the center of this one part of the larger piece.
Purportedly liberal Congressman Maloney voted to deny entry to the Unites States for refugees from the horrors of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the larger Syrian War, in much the same way the United States initially denied Jews and other refugees entry to our soil when trying to escape the atrocities of the Nazi death camps at the early part of World War II.
Now is when you start to understand the point of this absurdist art.
What seems more repulsive now?
A satirical picture of Hitler asking to share a beer with us in a comic book, or the actual fact that in today’s Israel, right-wingers at a rally were easily tricked by Yes Man-like activists into carrying signs which translate into Hebrew the Nazi slogan “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” (One People, One Nation, One Leader) because the slogan so clearly articulates the ideas of Netanyahu’s new Israel?
What’s more disgusting?
A picture of children with their faces whited out surrounded by confusing chatter from historical personalities like Martin Luther King and Joseph Stalin, or the reality of a uniformed American soldier who was seven on September 11, 2001 telling seven year-olds in 2015 why the memory of 9/11 means the United States must continue to engage in what the pentagon has stated will be a war that takes “a generation or more”, while those of us who were adults on 9/11 stand by silently?
This is the truth that bleeds through the lines in Alon’s Checkpoint Charlie.
The title Checkpoint Charlie at first appears to be a reference to the ever famous American clown Charlie Chaplin, and it is in a way. Alon, like Bretch, is a huge fan of Chaplin and his disarming humor. Yet, then you turn the page your learn about the real Checkpoint Charlie… it is a place where an innocent man, a refugee from an oppressive society, was shot between the lines of two nation-states, and was left there to bleed to death between the lines, because everyone was too afraid to help or say something.
And this is where this art leaves us, bleeding between the lines of nation-states, those peculiar entities, in which all sensible people believe, which all purport to their citizens to exist as some sort of center for supportive bureaucracy. This art exposes the repulsiveness, absurdity, and pain beneath human fear.
Fear is what killed Peter Fetcher (the man who was trying to escape East Germany through Checkpoint Charlie).
Fear is what Ori Alon seeks for us to first feel (in the repulsion), then laugh at (in the humor), and then understand (in the bleeding through the lines on the page).
This is a comic book about America (and Israel), from an Israeli-American artist who deeply loves the people of those two places, as he deeply loves humanity, and his desperate cry to help us see each other as people again, and end war and militarism, and their mutual progenitor, fear.
Fear is what is killing what was once great about the dream of America, even if the reality never existed. Repulsion at the absurd, laughter at the insane, and finally understanding of the pain we are all experiencing, are what will allow us to actualize the fading dream of a world where all people respect each others’ irrevocable rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and forgiveness.
In his work, Ori Alon points out how the Trump presidential campaign completely misunderstood the point of Niel Young’s “Keep on Rocking in the Free World”. In 2004, now Secretary of State John Kerry’s presidential campaign had a similar misuse of the title of Langston Hughes poem, Let America be America Again.
The real poem ends like this. It’s meaning, like the meaning in Ori Alon’s playful comics, bleeds between the lines…
O, let America be America again— The land that never has been yet— And yet must be—the land where every man is free. The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME— Who made America, Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain, Must bring back our mighty dream again. Sure, call me any ugly name you choose— The steel of freedom does not stain. From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives, We must take back our land again, America! O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath— America will be! Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies, We, the people, must redeem The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. The mountains and the endless plain— All, all the stretch of these great green states— And make America again!