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Talking Asses

The misguided prophet Balaam—who knew that words have meanings and must be used judiciously—should be the patron saint of the Internet

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In Sempre Susan, her very charming, recently released memoir of life with Susan Sontag, Sigrid Nunez—she was the girlfriend of Sontag’s son, David Rieff, as well as the grande dame’s youthful assistant—gives us a taste of the master’s esprit. “To read a whole shelf of books to research one twenty-page essay,” Nunez writes, channeling Sontag, “to spend months writing and rewriting, going through one entire ream of typing paper before those twenty pages could be called done—for the serious writer, this was, of course, normal. And, of course, you didn’t do it to feel good about yourself. … You didn’t do it for your own enjoyment (unlike reading), or for catharsis, or to express yourself, or to please some particular audience. You did it for literature.”

You did it for literature: Of all of Sontag’s intellectual heritage, this sentiment—expressed in various essays and interviews in various shades of austerity—may prove the most endurable. How many of us, after all, still do it for literature? How many measure, as Sontag commanded us to do, every attempted bit of writing not in light of its putative contribution to our fame and fortune but against the yardstick of absolute cultural necessity?

These aren’t rhetorical questions. Or, at least, they oughtn’t be. As technology keeps widening the boulevards down which dross marches into our computers, our smart phones, and our minds, we are surrounded by more and more evidence that Sontag’s credo is both fiercely urgent and deeply ignored. Nothing about blogs or tweets or status updates or other similar channels of immediacy encourages much thought of posterity, after all, and few, if any, wonder if the 140-character update they’re about to unleash into the ether contains anything that might be considered of service to the greater cause of human development. The very thought, likely—that what we write, that everything we write, should serve to bolster Literature, Culture, Humanity, and other capital-letter concepts—will seem, to most contemporaries, uncool. If there is anything our mediated era sanctifies it is the right—indeed, the obligation—for all to have an opinion, and to share these opinions on social networking platforms that turn them into commodities.

If this sounds to you like a bit of old-fashioned alarmist piffle, kindly avail yourself of last week’s New York Times Magazine and turn to page eight. On the bottom of the page, under the headline ”Analytics,” the newspaper printed several illustrations of envelopes, each embossed with a number. Each number represents the number of readers who had emailed the newspaper’s executive editor, Bill Keller, to call him a particular name: Eight insisted he was “a leftist,” six chose “elitist,” four cried “communist,” and 21, in true American fashion, opted for four-letter words. What’s fascinating isn’t that people, given access to email and Keller’s address, might choose to opine; that, after all, is what the Internet is for. What’s truly astounding is that the purveyor of all the news that’s fit to print would supplement its traditional letters to the editor page with such a numerical aggregate of rageful readers’ missives. What value do these slurs-by-the-numbers hold? Without context, what is a reader to learn from the mere fact that three anonymous correspondents think Keller a socialist? This is sound and fury, signifying nothing. Or worse: As we’re swept by the meaningless, easy rage—can you believe these people said Bill Keller wasn’t as smart as his daughters? The morons! For shame!—we lose track of the real, and necessary, questions we should be asking. What we need, then, is some sort of device to steer us back on path, a device like Balaam’s ass.

The hero of this week’s parasha, Balaam is a fascinating figure. Although not much is said about this seer in the Bible, the Talmud is filled with introspection and speculation about his particular powers. In Tractate Berachot, for example, Balaam’s particular and awesome powers are explained: Alone among mankind, he had the gift of divining the precise moment in which the Almighty was wrathful—even omnipotent beings are angry, every now and then, for no good reason—and making use of this knowledge to his advantage. Like cursing on command: As this week’s parasha begins, Balaam is summoned by the Moabite king Balak to cast a spell on the Israelites, an upstart nation he fears and despises. Balaam hesitates, but God appears and assures him that all is well. And so, soothed by the divine promise, and thrilled with the promise of a house filled with Moabite gold, Balaam mounts his ass and rides to meet Balak.

What happens next is too lyrical to summarize adequately. The ass sees an angel of the Lord, understands that Balaam is riding toward disaster, and stops mid-trot. Three times this happens, and three times the prophet curses the poor animal, until the ass, blessed with speech, protests, and Balaam, shocked, finally sees the angel himself and realizes his mistake. When he finally meets up with Balak, he has nothing but blessings to bestow on God’s chosen people. The Moabite is mad, but Balaam is unfazed. “What the Lord puts into my mouth,” he states, “that I must take care to say.”

Most of us, lacking a magical ass, haven’t the advantage of receiving word directly from the heavenly source. But there’s still a lesson to be learned from Balaam: Turning to Balak, the seer asks, “How can I curse whom God has not cursed, and how can I invoke wrath if the Lord has not been angered?” He understands, in other words, that anger and expletives are potent things, not mere words but vehicles for spiritual matter, and that hurling them unnecessarily and injudiciously can cause disaster. He understands, in other words, what Sontag, too, understood, and what so many of us, opining furiously online, seem to have forgotten: Words have mighty consequences, and we should give them very careful thought.

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i like to read my blog on shabbos

No one should mistake the internet as a portal “to bolster Literature, Culture, Humanity.” It certainly has the potential to do so. But along with that potential is the detritus (dross) of blogs, replies, etc. It is up to the reader to distinguish between writing that is good, bad, and somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. The mistake many people make is to perceive the act of publishing as being synonymous with quality, knowledge, and truth. We all can publish now. The act of publishing has become meaningless. It is only that which is being published that has any value. I think Balaam’s ass would agree.

Your article is very interesting and eloquent. I just have one question for you, with regards to the following:

“Nothing about blogs or tweets or status updates…encourages much thought of posterity…and few, if any, wonder if the 140-character update they’re about to unleash…might be considered of service to the greater cause of human development.”

Why does someone need to be concerned with the greater cause of human development when they post? They are doing something that is fun for them, or they are finding a way to express themselves, even if it is in a cheeky snippet.

Must every action we take in this life be guided by whether or not it contributes to mankind? Sometimes I want to just get on my phone (which I confess I use far too frequently) and say how I am happy that Lebron lost Game 6. Maybe I’m doing that because I was watching the game alone and wanted to communicate it to someone. And sure enough, a bunch of people responded to my posts. If I were to call those same people and have a nice conversation about it, or write them a flowery letter in snail mail and get one back, would you concede that I have now contributed to humanity? Your grudge seems to be against the medium alone, which is biased and unfair.

I am one of those people you are referring to, who uses electronics way too much. But I also play soccer, go for jogs, pray, learn, teach, eat, sleep, etc. and all of those things make me feel good, just like posting on my blog or texting a friend does. Who are you (or we) to judge someone else’s actions by the yardstick of earth-shattering ramifications?

Before you say I’m missing the point, know that I agree with you about online abuse and ill-conceived comments being placed permanently in the ether. I just take issue with you holding tweens to such a high standard on the internet alone. They act like petty children in person too. Maybe the issue is their parents, who, as their children hurt others, stand by impotently like Balak.

Liel Leibovitz says:

Dear Akiva,

Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. First, let’s get the important things out of the way: I, too, am thrilled that Lebron lost game 6.

As for my grudge, you are right that it is against the medium, but I do not consider it unfair. Unlike any other station in the history of human communications — a story of the few finding better and faster ways to talk to the many — this new iteration places a premium on participation, and encourages us all to have and express opinions. There is, of course, much that is wonderful about that development — only a fool or a cynic could claim otherwise — but also, I believe, an inherent danger of this cacophony of voices becoming insufferably and irreversibly loud.

We therefore needn’t limit our expressions to the grandest and loftiest of subjects, but we do have an obligation to communicate with respect for each other and for the truth, an obligation that is very frequently abandoned when we’re pressed to produce some witty observation for the benefit of our friends and followers.

Finally, you ask who are we to judge what others do. I’d like to respond by quoting my favorite political philosopher, Spiderman’s uncle, who said so wisely that with great power comes great responsibility. We’ve been given these new freedoms, these new ways to connect, and if we squander them largely on trivia we would have missed a great opportunity to advance our species just a bit.

I want to leave you with a quote from a gentleman who knew a thing or two about writing. In a letter to Tacitus in 79 AD, Pliny the Younger wrote: “Happy are they, in my opinion, to whom it is given either to do something worth writing about, or to write something worth reading; most happy, of course, those who do both.” And to that, we say Amen.

Thank you again for your thoughtful comment,


Caroline says:


enjoy yourself:)

Dear Liel, dear Akiva,

As a Clevelander of almost exactly two years’ standing, I thrill in cheering Lebron’s loss. It gives me a sense of belonging that I did not have for too long, being the only American Jew within a 25-mile radius of the small Bavarian town where I lived for 10 years.

I think it is the sense of belonging that is at the root of Akiva’s resentment of Liel’s condemnation. Tweets, status updates and the like are no more done “for literature” than claps on the back or “how the hell are ya”‘s upon greeting. If we remember Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the need to feel that one belongs is lower on the pyramid – and therefore more basic to the human psyche – than the needs for harmony and cognition. Bullies need to belong as well, to belong in their own minds to the club of those who can’t be pushed around. It is the potential anonymity of electronic comments that encourages both bullying and simple expression, but in virtual contexts anonymity is a choice.

E-mail is not mail. It is not a federal crime to peek at it if you are not the intended recipient. Comments are not articles. Conversations are not speeches. We are free to hold ourselves to Sontag’s high standards at all times, or only at certain times. But Liel, I think you are right: If we aspire to fulfill our full potential, to live the pyramid from pinnacle to roots instead of lolling on the truncated mesa of the first few layers, we would do well to be the asses who turn aside when they see angels.


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Talking Asses

The misguided prophet Balaam—who knew that words have meanings and must be used judiciously—should be the patron saint of the Internet

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