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Symbolism and the Grotesque

Bruno: a Glimpse Into Zionism?

by GILAD ATZMON

Bruno, Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest invention is a grotesque Austrian gay celebrity who comes to America to try to boost the ratings of his fashion television program.  Bruno is one of the most repugnant characters ever to appear on the big screen, something Baron Cohen probably takes pride in. Bruno is Cohen’s third gross character in succession. At times it seems as if Cohen is seeking pleasure in being repelling.  After mimicking an ignoramus stereotype of a non-black suburban male who revels in Black and Jamaican culture (Ali G) and a Kazakh misogynist, racist buffoon and anti-Semite (Borat),  Bruno can be grasped as another creative attempt to challenge the Western liberal discourse. 

Those who insist on approving Cohen’s intellectual aspirations argue in his favor that he manages to bring to light some of our inherent Western diseases: racism (Ali G), xenophobia (Borat) and homophobia (Bruno). I am slightly doubtful of such an interpretation of Cohen’s intellectual endeavor. None of Cohen’s protagonists can evoke empathic feelings amongst the people they harass. Instead they seem to compete amongst themselves for the ultimate Vulgar Award. Whether it is Borat, who approaches his host’s dinner table and his guests with his excrement in a plastic bag, or Bruno, who shares with us his anally intimate love games, Cohen’s protagonists are rejected for being truly and genuinely disgusting.

Yes, Cohen’s characters can be entreating, they can make us laugh; yet, the fact that they are rejected contemptibly is far from telling about our society. However, these scenes may throw some light about their creator, Mr Baron Borat Bruno Ali G Cohen and the social conditions he himself is imbued in.
Two years ago while in the process of gathering information about Cohen previous film Borat, I found out that Cohen had put back his wedding to former Home and Away star Isla Fisher due to some deep ‘religious’ reasons. "The couple," so I learned, "have postponed the big day so Isla could study the Bible in Israel before converting to Sacha’s religion of Judaism." This was enough to convince me at the time that Cohen wasn’t that different from his chauvinistic, tribally-orientated protagonist Borat.  For those who fail to understand the meaning of the above, Cohen is not just Jewish, he didn’t just ask his fiancée to join his extended family, he didn’t send her to a London Rabbi either. He really went for the ‘full Monty,’ that is: the Israeli experience. Cohen is in fact a devout Zionist and it would be interesting to elaborate and analyze his work from a Jewish Identity-politics perspective.

Though Ali G, Borat and Bruno have nothing to do with Judaism or Zionism, their identity struggle is, interestingly enough, a complete repetition of the Zionist identity complex. As in the case of Zionism, Ali G, Borat and Bruno are in a state of a complete dismissal of others. As if this is not enough, they are also celebrating their symptoms in public and at the expense of their victims.

Zionism, similarly, is a celebration of a newly-invented Jewish Identity. The Zionists set themselves to do it all on the expense of the Palestinian people. Until recently, some Zionist leaders refused to acknowledge the existence of Palestinian people. Zionism is a political setting that inherently dismisses others. One can look at the IDF’s brutality towards Palestinians, another can reflect on David Ben Gurion’s  famous quote: “It doesn’t matter what the Goyim say, all that matters is what Jews do”. Interestingly enough Ali G, Borat and Bruno are celebrating a very similar form of dismissal. They are self-centered protagonists who care mostly about themselves and their own unique actions and symptoms.

However, as much as Bruno is by far Cohen’s most repulsive character to date, he is also, emotionally at least, the most developed character out of the three.  Unlike Ali G and Borat, Bruno is self-conscious. He has clear desires and he struggles to fill his inner void. In fact the audience is mobilized as a witness to Bruno’s evolving self-awareness. As great as Bruno’s desires are, his repeated failures are no less than a total devastation. He is desperate to be accepted as a celebrity. He would do whatever it takes to get there. He would swap his iPod for an African cute little toddler just to ‘appear’ like Madonna; he would try to drag Ron Paul into a porn scene just to hit the news with an ‘item’. He interprets success in symbolic terms rather than anything that is related to merit.

Jewish nationalism is very similar. It is a project run by Israelis who crave to be a people like other people. But for some bizarre reason they fail to understand what the notion of ‘other people’ stands for. They can only understand it symbolically in terms of a set of material identifiers. 
When you ask an Israeli ‘how can you be so cruel to the Palestinians?’ The answer will be thrown back at you, “Haven’t the Americans been cruel with their Indians? Didn’t the Brits do the same in India?”

The Israeli may even interpret state terrorism and barbarism as a natural symbol of sovereignty.

Bruno yearns to be a celeb amongst celebrities. The Zionist is craving to join the family of nations. Like Bruno, Zionists understand their nationhood in symbolic terms, they have a flag, an air force, nuclear bombs and wars. For some reason, it is just a genuine compassion which they lack–probably because genuine feeling and authenticity cannot be reduced into mere symbolism. It is the real love to their alleged ‘historic land’ which the Zionist fail to exhibit when shredding it with walls of separation. Like the Zionist, Bruno is pretty much stuck; he cannot transcend himself beyond the symbolic order. As much as the Zionists find it difficult to become an ordinary nation considering their symptoms (non-ethical existence together with racial supremacy), Bruno finds it very hard to integrate into society considering who he is (lacking ethical awareness and imbued in his gay solipsistic (1) universe).

While in his early work Baron Cohen  managed to fail to distinguish between Identity and being, in his latest work he may have become aware of this crucial  dichotomy. Gay and homosexuality, for instance, are very different categories. While ‘Gay’ refers to an Identity largely associated with a set of symbolic identifiers, homosexuality refers to a sexual preference.

Interestingly enough, throughout the film Bruno operates as a Gay icon. He is totally imbued within the Gay symbolic realm, he swings his buttocks without leaving any room for  doubt about who he is and what he stands for: he wears the right clothes and uses the right manner of speech.  But then, towards the very last scene, it all changes, Bruno for the first time surrenders to his true authentic sexual desire.

At a certain stage Bruno realises that in order to become a celebrity he would have to be ‘straight’. In the final scene we meet  Bruno in a wrestling arena surrounded by rednecks. Bruno, the natural chameleon (2), is now an anti-Gay macho figure. He manages to evoke cheers from his new crowd by spitting some rabid homophobic statements. For a second it works.  For the first time in the film Bruno is accepted by his surrounding social reality.    Very much like the Assimilated Jew who follows Moses Mendelssohn’s (3) line of thought ‘be a Goy in the street and a Jew in your dwelling’, Bruno is mimicking the ‘straight’ on stage while keeping his true identity hidden, but the truth is chasing him and cannot be concealed. 

All of a sudden, his ex-assistant, an authentic homosexual who has been loving Bruno all the way through appears from the crowd. “You are Gay” he shouts to Bruno as he makes his way through the throng. The assistant’s  role in the film is similar to  Herzl’s and Weizmann’s task within the Zionist epic narrative. Herzl and Weizmann are there to tell their fellow  assimilated Jews, ‘stop pretending at being American, French, British, Bolsheviks, Cosmopolitans and Atheists, you are primarily Jews and you better behave accordingly.’  

In the film it doesn’t take more than a few seconds before Bruno and his assistant depart into a  same-sex act of genuine love making. Seemingly, for the first time Bruno follows his heart rather than banal symbolism. This is obviously a repetition of the Zionist message. As opposed to Mendelssohn deceitful dualism, the Zionists would tell their followers: do not pretend to be a Goy, do not pretend to be a cosmopolitan, do not pretend to be a Marxist, just  surrender to your real and true Jewish reality.

But here we do encounter a slight problem. While Bruno has a homosexual reality to safely land upon, it is not clear at all whether there is any Jewish coherent genuine reality except Judaism. The Jewish socialist identity (bund) collapsed half a century ago. The Zionists had been trying to claim a valid and coherent Jewish national secular identity, but all they really present us with is  merciless conduct and a barbarian state terrorism that have very little in common with humanity. If there is a Jewish humanist school, the nature of its (uniquely Jewish) value system remains unclear. The lack of a coherent and consistent Jewish secular Identity may explain why all forms of Jewish secularity are highly engaged in symbolism. Whether it is Zionism, Jewish anti-Zionism, Jewish secularism or even Jewish humanism, it is almost always engaged in conveying a symbolic image rather than aiming at the real thing (4).  

As much as I find it hard to cope with Cohen’s latest repugnant character, I may as well have to admit that in light of the above realizations of Bruno as an insightful metaphor, the film may not be that bad after all.

Gilad Aztmon is a writer and jazz musician living in London. His latest cd is In Loving Memory of America.

1. Solipstic: the belief that the only thing somebody can be sure of is that he or she exists, and that true knowledge of anything else is impossible

2. Not only is Bruno is a chameleon he is also invented and performed by Britain’s NO 1 chameleon namely Cohen. 

3. Moses Mendelssohn (September 6, 1729 – January 4, 1786) was a Jewish thinker largely associated with Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) and with ideas to do with Jewish assimilation.

4. Judaism is also saturated with symbolism, yet, one would expect that Jewish secularization would lead towards an authenticity that goes beyond mere symbolism.