December 31, 2007

Returns, Resolutions, Remembrances

To read only children's books
Only childish thoughts, throw
Grown-up things away
And rise from deep sorrows.

I'm tired to death of life,
I accept nothing it can give me,
But I love my poor earth
Because it's the only one I've seen.

In a far-off garden I swung
On a simple wooden swing,
And I remember the dark tall firs
In a hazy fever.

--Osip Mandelstam, from Stone (1908)

November 13, 2007

A Postscript to The Company Kept

"Until we reveal to ourselves and revel in the true meaning of our acts we will go on suffering the double penalty of guilt and ineffectualness.

I am in a bad way as I write these words. My health is poor. I have a treacherous wife, an unhappy home, unsympathetic superiors. I suffer from headaches. I sleep badly. I am eating myself out. If I knew how to take holidays perhaps I would take one. But I see things and have a duty toward history that cannot wait. What I say is in pieces. I am sorry. I sit in libraries and see things. I am in the honorable line of bookish men who have sat in libraries and had visions of great clarity. I name no names. You must listen. I speak with the voice of things to come. I speak in troubled times and tell you how to be as children again. I speak to the broken halves of all our selves and tell them to embrace, loving the worst in us equally with the best.

Tear this off, Coetzee, it is a postscript, it goes to you, listen to me."
--J. M. Coetzee, Dusklands

November 8, 2007

The Company Kept

November 6, 2007: Senator Arlen Specter on why Attorney General nominee Judge Michael Mukasey could not speak to the obvious truth that the controlled drowning technique known as waterboarding is illegal:

"And he said, in answers to my letter of October 24, that he was reluctant to put people at risk, and we know that a couple of weeks ago former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was served with legal process, unclear exactly what it was, perhaps a warrant of arrest. We know that some countries are exercising extraterritorial jurisdiction on crimes against humanity, that Prime Minister Sharon was under indictment from Belgium. And we know what happened with Pinochet, so that there is a risk factor. So I think he went about as far as he could go, and I think now it’s a matter for the Congress."

October 21, 2007

Adopting a father from afar

A picture from the Sunday New York Times: an Istanbul cafe. Deep red-colored cloth on tables and dark wood chairs against the soothing yellow light. In the background, on the left, a picture suspended. In the foreground, to the right, as if sharing status in the image, a man smoking, head back in committed inhalation. The man is anonymous, the picture is of Ataturk. But at first glance it looks like someone else. The posture in the portrait, the angle of his position, a stray lock of hair on a wide brow, the eyes that seem to retreat from being seen while staring out in heavy-lidded suspicion and a back hunched into a heavy cloak lend the appearance of another iconic figure: Nadar's Baudelaire.

It is impossible to turn away from the fantasy that follows from the mis-recognition. A poet leaves France, and poetry; not Rimbaud, but instead, Baudelaire. He criss-crosses the Bosporus as if leaping from one world to the other. The destination of exile not Africa, but that corner of the nascent Ottoman Empire. Wandering the small alleyways looking for the living traces of what he had seen in the background of the watercolors scarred by pen and ink by Constantin Guys, waiting for the inevitable encounter with that which had lodged itself in his memory. One imagines he would have moved through the masses absorbing the quivering lines of dress and habits, the overflowing Orientalist's lust which was stoked in Paris, ebbing under the reality of the world encountered. The result might have been a sensibility like that of "a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life." This would produce "an 'I' with an insatiable appetite of for the 'non-I'" (The Painter of Modern Life).

Impossible to build to a nation on flickering grace. But in the fantasy of Baudelaire as Turkey's father, the refugees who streamed in during the Crimean and Russo-Ottoman Wars find not a voice that sanctifies the losses and explains the need for revenge and cold realism both, but an environment slack with the weakest form of imperial value; an ethos in love with "martial nonchalance."

Armies adopt a pose lavish in form only. The hierarchies are aesthetic and pertain to fashion. The nation develops as an anti-nation: devoted to the contingent, ephemeral, and momentary, with no time for myth nor nationalism born of wound, trauma, and despair. The potency of forgetting all but the "memory of the present," which offers salvation not in the rage of a broken empire, but instead the infinite "privileges offered by circumstance." No look to the past, which is bound to author the play of old pain and massacres.

"Almost all our originality," Baudelaire wrote, eye cocked to the coming of the night and the play of the city, "comes from the deal which Time imprints on our sensations" (The Painter of Modern Life).

October 18, 2007

Forces on the Borders

With the current U.S. administration seeking to soothe Turkey's sensitivity over a proposed congressional resolution on its history, and Turkey threatening an incursion into the Kurdish region of Iraq, and the EU more closely considering the possibility of Turkey's inclusion within "Europe," past, present, and future seem to be set in a dramatic constellation.

The mass of Turkey's troops on the border, and the diplomatic efforts at restraining a Turkish assault, by both the U.S. and the EU, are the problems of here and now. A congressional resolution affirming the Armenian genocidewhich in the wake of the Holocaust has begun to taken on the aura of the original extermination, redraws the image a long-instantiated sensibility, bolstered by Turkish law, that there be no responsibility for what happens in the fog of war.

This logic is, of course, at work in the U.S. occupation of Iraq where the dreams of counter-insurgency and the chaos of an umbrella conflict leave the true measure of ethnic cleansing uncertain, even while a protracted U.S. presence was, for a time, bolstered by the argument that to leave would be to countenance a coming genocide.

Those who have long fought Turkish denials of the crimes committed between 1915-20, and the government’s concomitant and continuing human rights abuses, see the European Union as an ally in the struggle for the ideals of global, transitional justice: “truth,” “recognition,” and “reconciliation.” The U.S. congressional resolution risks the latter for the sake of the former by heeding the Armenian call for recognition.

In the context of the EU negotiations, the argument is this: the more Turkey moves toward accepting a process of working through its traumatic past the further it will be drawn into a European sphere. This model promises that Turkey can escape the darkness of denial and dwell in the light of democracy. To come to terms is to accept a new language of truth and enlightenment.

This suggests there is a threshold Turkey can cross by reconciling itself to its past, and by virtue of this act, find harmony with European ideals. If there is ever to be a dialogue about the divide between the Turkish dis-memory of 1915-20 and the Armenian legacy, the EU seems poised to accelerate that process. As the exiled historian Taner Akcam writes, "The European Union might be the ideal interlocutor as it is already involved in monitoring Turkish compliance with [European] norms—including those involving human and minority rights." The European attempts to bring Turkey in line with such "norms" have, however, thus far floundered on institutionalized Turkish resistance, not to mention echoes of western imperialism and Turkish nationalism; moreover, it is surely the case that the "norms" themselves are troubled enough.

There are parallels between the impulse of a few to deny the Holocaust in Europe and Turkey's long-held and deliberate strategy of avoiding Armenian claims, but the idea that there are "norms" which have sustained a European openness to its past crimes are easily clouded by France and its "Vichy syndrome" or Germany's troubled incorporation of Holocaust memory: whether in the form of a Historikersreit, the more recent Wehrmacht exhibition controversy, or the ambivalent response to the Berlin memorial designed by the American Jewish architect, Peter Eisenman. Such complex responses to unremarkable expressions of historical truth suggest the impossibility of marking the point at which the past can be safely viewed. At its worst there is there is sublime sensation of vulnerability, a dizzying rush of stimuli finally checked by reason's insistence: that was then.

In the present instability of Iraq's slow simmering collapse and Kurdish agitation, Turkey certainly sees symbolic resolutions as a very real threat to the perception of sovereignty -- the monopoly on violence that signifies the state finds a kindred insistence in the declared sovereignty over historical memory. Kurdish agitation and Armenian demands bleed together into a new form of an old Turkish question.

As for Europe and the U.S. Congress, asking Turkey to face its ghosts means each should rightly face the respective demands of reckoning past crimes and present countenance.

September 27, 2007

From on High, Again

"The last entry in my Great-Uncle Adelwarth's little agenda book was written on the Feast of Stephen. Cosmo, it reads, had had a bad fever after their return to Jerusalem but was already on the way to recovery again. My great-uncle also noted that late the previous afternoon it had begun to snow, and that, looking out the hotel window at the city, white in the falling dusk, it made him think of times long gone. Memory, he added in a postscript, often strikes me as a kind of dumbness. It makes one's head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down on the earth from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds."

--W. G. Sebald, "Ambrose Adelwarth," The Emigrants

September 20, 2007

Waiting through the variable

Driven out of the university because she had been born Jewish, Simone Weil spent the early war years of France cultivating a particular hunger in the grape fields of a landowner who hid her. Laboring hard despite a weak body and the plague of headaches, she surrendered her ration cards to political prisoners in need. Although she eventually "escaped" by sailing to America with her parents, it was only to re-route herself to England or Russia and the war itself. When she did arrive in England she enlisted her spirit, if not her body, in the French Resistance. She could not be removed from the place of necessity.

Tragedy of those who, having been guided by the love the Good into a road where suffering has to be endured, after a certain time reach their limit and become debased.
(Simone Weil, "Void and Compensation")

The war had two years to go when she died in 1943, at the age of 36, and in 1946, long after the Normandy invasion and the liberation of France, the war's impact was still being felt in the northwest village of Saint-Lo, where Samuel Beckett worked at the hospital run by the Irish Red Cross.

There among the debris heaped and hilled, still shaping the landscape, and the explosions of remnant munitions, he too gave himself over to the place of necessity; refusing the fiction of neutrality he chose a steadfast encounter with the provisional.

War present and absent. Sleeplessness, striking pain dripping in the brain, ulcers, lesions, the body's betrayal, memory's imprints along the edges of the eyes.

"Headaches. At a certain moment, the pain is lessened by projecting it into the universe, but the universe is impaired; the pain is more intense when it comes home again, but something in me does not suffer and remains in contact with a universe which is not impaired."
(Simone Weil, "Void and Compensation")

Both wrote most powerfully of the wait, for Godot, for God, as if in the suspended state beyond churches and institutions and a defeating hunger one found the destructions one must inhabit if there is to be recognition of the true time on earth, incurable. Weil would write words that clung to the universe Beckett would try throughout to eclipse, shaving away its light until Weil's "absence of a place" that opens access to Being becomes Beckett's sense of Being absolutely reduced: Breath, once and done. Still, for each, a striving to tend to the ruins.

Both rejected "politics" and its misnaming language even while they cultivated the art of the just and enact, in their way, the spirit of human rights, bearing witness to such necessity and the impossible paths to any ensured actuality.

"The relations between social forces are essentially variable, and the underprivileged will always seek to alter them; it is wrong to enforce an artificial stabilization. What is required is discrimination between the imaginary and the real, so as to diminish the risks of war, without interfering with the struggle between forces which, according to Heraclitus, is the condition of life itself." (
Simone Weil, "The Power of Words")

September 7, 2007


Staging Antigone in Switzerland following the Second World War, the continent remaining to be rebuilt, Bertolt Brecht reached into the tragedy for its essential dramatic resource: a lesson of absolute ruination. In this treatment, he said, the played is allowed to work its inherent powers upon those who dare stage it.

Thebes in a climate of war has no room left for a position reserved for what we crave to call humanity. The Chorus of Sophocles, over the scattered bodies, speaks of a coming wisdom. But for Brecht, there can be no instruction given the atmosphere within which the tyrants are able to operate and the individuals, whatever their claims to the law, are seduced into vulnerability and smashed into subjection or suicide. No law, no family bond, no rebellion through a "fierce presence" (as Lacan says of Antigone herself) can be extracted from the wreckage.

"Violence," Brecht writes, "splits the forces instead of wedding them together; basic humanity, under too much pressure, explodes scattering everything with it into destruction."

The point of catharsis, given this, is death itself. No appeal to the law will aid the future once the tyrant Creon, operating through the gruesome trivium of power, fear, and retribution has made his declaration. His faith in his right position, a self-serving selflessness that promises protection for the city, blossoms under the heat of the circumstance. Therefore, Brecht insists, rightly, that the voice affirming always his decision-making authority can only be unteachable. The tyrant is, by definition, incapable of ever responding to reason, to insight, even to the bloody stains of the carnage. His own "daughter"--and any allure of a future escape through what follows--perishes in the conflations of power and prejudice.

This reading also rejects any sense that Antigone has been somehow vindicated by her choice of holding to obligations of the the family despite all risk (she is protected, this thought goes, by the higher law). In Brecht's version, the law is no match for the "inadequacy" of those who inhabit the positions of decision. The tragedy eclipses all that is on the stage and the very terms with which one may long to intervene for the sake of doing what is right through the rites of memory and blood and mourning. All to no avail. Such is the lesson of the circumstance.

August 9, 2007

What Comes in the Wake

The signature of Claude Lanzmann's Shoah is its emphasis on the memory of experience and the landscape of absence rather than on historical recreation. Nonetheless, at one point Lanzmann uses Raul Hilberg, the old scholar in his Vermont kitchen, to paint a portrait so swift, so expansive, so thorough that it seems more cosmological than historical. 

The author of The Destruction of the European Jews, a book that densely catalogs the machinery of genocide, reduces the Holocaust to its essential movements and logic. "From the earliest days, from the fourth century, the sixth century," Hilberg says in a voice of certainty and care, "the missionaries of Christianity had said in effect to the Jews: 'You may not live among us as Jews.' The secular rulers who followed them from the late Middle Ages then decided: 'You may not live among us' and the Nazis finally decreed: 'You may not live.'"

There is an elegance and rhythm in this measured description. In the trio of fearfully symmetrical phrases, Hilberg spans two millennia, sweeping through them with chilling grace. The economy of his summation actually recalls the terse poetry of Edmond Jabès, who said of the Holocaust and the use of minimal language, "It isn't necessary to go into details. When you say: they were deported--that is enough for a Jew to understand the whole story" (The Sin of the Book).

That brevity bears no resemblance to the great work of archival recreation Hilberg was forced to produce in telling a story of the Holocaust. A notable aspect of that story in The Destruction of the European Jews is an emphasis on Jewish passivity, a posture in the face of horror that aided the dissolution and fragmentation. Hilberg begins famously by claiming that his work is "not a book about the Jews." He says he separates his investigation of "the correspondence, memoranda, and conference minutes which were passed desk to desk" from "the internal developments of Jewish organization and Jewish social structure." The latter, he says, belongs to the category of "Jewish history." 

 But as the people destroyed, their history is being written. Describing the process of killing, Hilberg makes a general claim with a perverse Darwinian inflection about inherent Jewish attributes: "The Jewish crowds which surged into the gas chambers were incapable of striking back. In two thousand years they had deliberately unlearned the art of revolt. They were helpless."

The one Jewish source that stands out in Hilberg's project is the diary of the Warsaw Ghetto leader, Adam Czerniakow. Czerniakow's journal entries provide Hilberg with access to the daily demands of a Jewish "official" engaging the Nazi apparatus on behalf of the ghetto. Imagining Czerniakow's privileged perspective allows Hilberg to feel he regains the past as it unfolded in the present tense:
The diary became a place, a strange locality that I was entering for the first time. I was a voyeur, a ghost inside Czerniakow’s office, unobserved. . . . I dwelled with him to grasp his struggle with problems of housing, food, starvation, disease, taxes, and police, and to observe him while he had to listen to the incessant wailing of Jewish women beseeching him for help outside his office door. (The Politics of Memory)
Hilberg translates the image of the written diary so that he, Hilberg, observes Czerniakow listening to the wail of the beseeching Jewish women. It is as if Hilberg, as a historian of the destruction, cannot bear hearing them himself. They are background. There, but effectively silenced; a mass of undistinguished Jewish suffering held at bay by an office door. This is a fitting picture of Hilberg's own work that must reconstruct the killers methods and the vast system of collaboration engendered by the givens of European societies. Its focus on the procedural demands caught in the documents of official sites must be deaf to the echoes of wailing outside those sites.

It was, of course, the wailing that proved the end for Czerniakow. When he could not protect the children of the ghetto he killed himself. Hilberg's portrait emphasizes Czerniakow's complicity in bridging victim and perpetrator while praising him for carrying out the (necessary) administration of the doomed ghetto with steadfastness and wit. He describes Czerniakow's capacity to make a joke, to acknowledge the affirming qualities of people in the midst of the disaster. It feels, however, as if Hilberg relates this side of Czerniakow's character to suggest that he too has an ability to find a humane lightness in the horror. Hilberg says that Czerniakow always had strange descriptions of the ghetto: "of a band playing in front of a funeral parlor, of a hearse with drunken drivers, of a dead child running around the grounds. He had rather sardonic comments about death.” When Hilberg recounts these examples to a group in San Francisco he is bemused to note that “the audience sat stunned and silent."  

Throughout his various statements about Czerniakow, the surreal image of a dead child running passes without further comment, even though this stunning description perhaps says more about the conditions Czerniakow faced than all the "dignity" Hilberg might wish to find in the "organizational man," a fellow traveler in the death-drives and death marches and "liquidations."

If Czerniakow's diary has, in its bookish heft, a testimonial presence, its use by Hilberg dissolves that quality. For Hilberg, in the end, does not need his other, the man who was actually there. Czerniakow too disappears. Claiming to have been allowed access into the past, Hilberg writes, "I was a voyeur, a ghost inside Czerniakow’s office, unobserved. . . . I dwelled with him." In The Politics of Memory, Hilberg goes on to describe a moment in Lanzmann’s Shoah when he reads from the diary. "At the end Lanzmann said to me, 'You were Czerniakow.'" The identification is thus complete. The men who survive, who organize, who remain true to the necessities never mind the screams.

Through Hilberg, the ghetto leader's words are reanimated for the future, Hilber's voice forever there to not only speak over the words of Czerniakow, but silence those other voices, "the incessant wailing of Jewish women" outside the door. It is precisely at that point where the singular comes to stand for the masses, and the logos of a ghetto leader's desperate attempts to make sense of a catastrophe eclipses the mere wail, groan, or cry that history itself appears. The dead thus pay the price for their exclusion, and the scribe, like Czernaikow, eventually finds it unbearable. What comes in their wake is the translation.

August 8, 2007

When I hold a document in my hand

When I hold a document in my hand, particularly if it’s an original document, then I hold something which is actually something that the original bureaucrat held in his hand. It’s an artifact. It’s a leftover. It’s the only leftover there is. The dead are not around.

--Raul Hilberg, 1926-2007

July 31, 2007

From on High

Jennifer Baichwal has again made a film about what photography captures and the contradictions of what it represents. Again, stills are set into motion, their impact as photographs quietly explored through their contrast with the film that houses them. If one left her critique in The True Meaning of Pictures with a greater appreciation for the complexities of encountering a culture through the limits of the documentary, Manufactured Landscapes uses the limits of documentary to illustrate the sublime scale of industry and its corrosive grip on humankind.

Edward Burtynsky's photographs of the industrial process has become a much-used lens through which to feel humankind's creative destruction. Through Baichwal's editing, his large-format scenes slide by one after another, backed by a soundtrack of electronica and chant that, recalling Ethan Rose's relentless compositions, worms its way through one's apprehension of the images. They are portraits of man-made sites the likes of which Robert Smithson, in his most audacious moments, surely dreamt.

Burtynsky's photographs are vast and saturated with their subject matter, just as the subject matter -- the systems of industry -- saturate the landscapes they both inhabit and create. Burtynsky is drawn to the symmetry of strip mines and quarries, the heaps of metals and the ruins made in the madness of progress. We are given the surreal colors of polluted waters, the lush reds of rusted steel, the thick sick blandness of cities drenched in coal dust and new constructions. The people, if they are there, are inevitably small, like some forgotten tribe never properly studied.

The film takes Burtynsky's recent China images for its focus because the changes there are so dramatic and of such a scale that they come to stand for the long history of extracting from land the resources needed to make innumerable goods.  The construction and destruction of the vast ships that circle the globe with that cargo and the appetite to both consume and make, over and over, and through it all, an exhale in the a wake of wreckage that is otherwise always out of sight. And upon it all, Baichwal throws us a furtive glimpse of Burtynsky, with tripod and camera, waiting for the right light, bending, holding his breath for that crucial instant, capturing "it."

The it is never in the photographs, though, for it is the saturation that exceeds any single shot, and it is through that feeling of an inescapable and tragic trajectory that the film achieves its affect: the chilling recognition of a twilight time. There is no eschatology, no threat of an eleventh hour, but rather the Boschesque vision of being overtaken by the plot of history. There there is nothing stilled, no singular images, just the interlacing of weave of the system.

July 19, 2007

1918, 1938, 2008

No ghost is dragged onto the ramparts to suggest a tragic direction more than Neville Chamberlain. Citing the Munich Agreement of 1938 is now a matter of rhetorical reflex, routinely used by those with militarist intentions and sensibilities to defend those intentions and sensibilities as the "evil" necessitated by Evil. Hitler was "appeased" with dire consequences, the argument goes, suggesting at the same time that the true hope for peace in our time lies somewhere beyond the horizon of an endless war.

Chamberlain, upon returning from Munich said, "The real triumph is that it has shown that representatives of four great Powers can find it possible to agree on a way of carrying out a difficult and delicate operation by discussion instead of by force of arms, and thereby they have averted a catastrophe which would have ended civilisation as we have known it."

True enough, the catastrophe came anyway. And that it came with such ferocity has made "Munich!" the great war cry of confrontation. In Israel, "Munich" has long been the potent symbol for enemies of the state: of both the diplomatic ones within and the Arab ones without. In the U.S. this past week, John McCain accused those urging a new direction for the disaster that is Iraq of likewise contributing the U.S.'s defeat, of being aligned with Evil, of ensuring the catastrophes to come. His Republican colleague Lindsay Graham argued for the justness of the war and the importance of its continuation with the chant: "let our soldiers win."

McCain was conjuring Chamberlain to his (and President Bush's) Churchill. Instead of Hamletic anxiety, he was suggesting, we need the resoluteness of Fortinbras, who leads his men into Poland, thousands upon thousands, to fight for a plot of land not big enough to bury them.

Graham, unwittingly, was proving the horrific rightness of another historical parallel. The lesson is also German, but the date is 1918 and not 1938. The Weimar Republic of Germany, which produced Hitler's Reich, was infused with the spirit of vengeance: in 1918 the elites has been betrayed by the masses; masses infected as they were by forces that would have to be rooted out. Defeat in the Great War could be paid for by purging the enemies within. Victory had been denied. If only the soldiers had been allowed to win, the bitter logic goes, Germany would have rightfully prevailed. The dangers of delusion.

At the same time Senator Graham was claiming the possibility of victory in a hopeless pit of death, a conservative commentator on another Sunday morning show, was making the following dire point about such delusion:

"We are in danger of having . . . a Weimar moment in our politics. German politics was embittered disastrously by the belief that they were on the cusp of victory in 1918 and were stabbed in the back by the civilian leadership who didn't understand Germany's military prowess. There is a constituency in this town that believes we're winning in Iraq, that we have at last figured it out, that the indexes of success are there, and that if we pull out and have the kind of disastrous consequences--telegenic disastrous consequences we could have--we're going to have people saying, 'we had it won and threw it away.'"

He did not articulate the consequences. He did not have to. In the carefully managed state of emergency which is U.S. politics, history is called upon to play its role: the first time as catastrophe, the second time as tragedy, always with a difference, and yet always with too many bodies to be taken up off the stage.

July 7, 2007

From our love there will be born poetry

I know the cost in pain, in sweat,
And in burning sunlight on the blazing hillside,
Of creating my life, of giving me a soul:
I shall not be ungrateful or malevolent,
For I feel a boundless joy when I flow
Down the throat of a man worn out by his labor;
His warm breast is a pleasant tomb
Where I'm much happier than in my cold cellar.

--Charles Baudelaire, "The Soul of Wine"

In his famous response to a draft of Walter Benjamin's Baudelaire study, Theodor Adorno takes issue with a critical method he calls "immediate materialism." This "anthropological" approach manifests itself, Adorno says, in Benjamin's reading of Baudelaire's poem, "The Soul of Wine" (L'Ame du Vin). The reading, according to Adorno, moves recklessly "from the duty on wine to L'Ame du Vin," thereby imputing "to phenomena precisely that kind of spontaneity, palpability and density which they have lost in capitalism."

For Benjamin, to read Baudelaire meant finding the "specific gravity" of "intoxication," the thresholds of difference between the realm of commodity and labor, and the acts, gestures, and states of being (be they poetic dream or "hopelessly depleted existence") that mark the modern world. Where Baudelaire writes

For I feel a boundless joy when I flow
Down the throat of a man worn out by his labor;
His warm breast is a pleasant tomb
Where I'm much happier than in my cold cellar.
Do you hear the choruses resounding on Sunday
And the hopes that warble in my fluttering breast?
With sleeves rolled up, elbows on the table,
You will glorify me and be content;
I shall light up the eyes of your enraptured wife,
And give back to your son his strength and his color;
I shall be for that frail athlete of life
The oil that hardens a wrestler's muscles.

Benjamin responds, "The son of the proletarian figures in 'L'Ame du vin' with the words, 'this frail athlete of life' -- an infinitely sad correspondence of modernity and antiquity." Movement and hardening, athleticism and frailty, the faint chorus of hope and desperation, all of it there for the sake of clinging to what is needed for the next day, a frail victory against the measure of loss, medicine for the march of time and its ceaseless present.

Johnathan Nossiter's documentary of wine, Mondovino (2004), can be encapsulated by its balancing of the rightfully critical, but ultimately reductive, impulse of Adorno, and Benjamin's insistence on taking seriously the discrete enigmas of existence as they emerge. Nossiter's wandering-eye camera presents wine as a potent commodity and a symbol of sad correspondences. It is a global product carrying all the complex residues of spontaneity, palpability and density in an age of late capital.

On its face, the film is an indictment of globalization's destruction of craft. Even without the backdrop of the European Social Forum for economic justice, this theme dominates. The age-old vintners are victims of the corporate mentality that markets soil, sensibility, tradition, and family heritage; all of it as shallow as slogans. It is easy to see how the rush to marketability erases the "soul" of the wine, its relation to the earth from which it emerges, or its terroir, which is now no longer discernible to the tongue. Terroir itself becomes an empty term used to sell a region when the wine has ceased to have any properties that tie it to its supposed origin. The idiosyncratic tastes of the deeply influential wine critic Robert Parker dictate the standards, the world-wide reach Napa Valley's Robert Mondavi 's winery helps homogenize the environments of reproduction, and wine consultants like Michel Rolland ensure that the products of France, Italy, Argentina, etc. all fall into the californicated expectations of the buying public. Where new oak casks were never used before, now they are ubiquitous. In another Benjaminian sense, the film might, at first look, seem to be about wine's lost aura.

But if the film is about the smothering sameness bred by capital, it is also about the drama of generations shaped by the best and the worst of inheritances: sun-drenched lands and history, all that beauty part of a world economy that presses fast and hard at the roots. Whether it is the Mondavi boys or the old, European families, it is inevitably the sons who falter, wholly unable to find the beauty of the gift given, made graceless by wrongheaded visions of what is necessary and viable.

Nossiter is absolutely deft in this regard. The Mondavis are shown as the husks of a father's forming ressentiment. At the same time, many of the older families are grotesque caricatures of elite entitlement, so many of those wine-making families having prospered under fascist rulers and now peddling their wine as the spirit of (a tired) authenticity. They betray the pitiful fragility of old aristocratic orders that have seen those entitlements dissolve under the onslaughts of the consultants, the journalists, the market, new ideas.

Still, in it all, the spontaneous possibility of wine as a love object. Adorno said it could not exist. Benjamin asked how it could, and why it would, given the circumstances. Nossiter shows it in brief moments. There is the tired drink of the old French father who may be losing his estate to his son's new methods, but who stands beside his daughter and with her --their sensibilities like trampled halos in a fallen world -- tastes and measures the extraction from his casks with great care. He shows it too in the only time we truly see Nossiter in front of the camera, drinking the homemade wine of an indigenous Argentinian man removed from the economy of labels and new method. He wears an eruptive and enigmatic smile at the taste and the gift.

"Vegetal ambrosia, precious grain scattered
By the eternal Sower, I shall descend in you
So that from our love there will be born poetry,
Which will spring up toward God like a rare flower!"

July 4, 2007

The Ambiguities of Independence

Two legal cases in early July: the commuted sentence of Scooter Libby in the U.S. and the re-incarceration of Mordechai Vanunu in Israel. The former was protected from the consequences of obstructing justice, a reward for helping the state to leak its intelligence secrets and confuse the public about threats beyond it. The latter is again in prison for communicating with "foreigners" after having, in 1986, told the truth about Israel's nuclear capabilities to the Times of London. One helped disseminate mis-information about nuclear threats to invite a war and another exposed the very real existence of a program that was developing them.

Libby will surely be pardoned, and in the meantime feted as martyr, financially rewarded for being the good soldier, and come to be a symbolic reminder of the grace afforded to those who stand steadfast with power. Vanunu was kidnapped in Rome by the Mossad, tried secretly for treason, and spent the better part of the last 21 years -- more than eleven in a tortuous, solitary confinement -- under arrest for betraying Israel's desire to keep its nuclear program and capabilities "ambiguous." It seems unlikely he will be allowed to leave prison and then, as is his stated wish, to leave Israel; the basis for his "freedom" has consistently been that he refrain from any contact with anyone not Israeli, and it is this encampment of his existence that he rejects. Surely there is the wish for some Devil's Island onto which he might be dropped.

But Libby's freedom and Vanunu's sacrifice are in view, reminders of the dictatorial impulses of democracies that forge themselves out of the heat of so-called emergencies.

A year after Eichmann in Jerusalem appeared, Hannah Arendt offered a more general theory of "Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship." She writes there of the weapon of "irresponsibility": a moral act that is responsible not to the law, not the oaths of power, but to the dignity of being human. It is a fine philosophy. The current horrors of the world's power, embodied by those two men passing through the legal systems of the U.S. and Israel, makes it seem as dead as dust.

June 12, 2007

Surviving the Inquiry

DePaul University is doing its best to protect its brand in the wake of rejecting Norman Finkelstein's bid for tenure. Despite all signs to the contrary, it declares academic freedom is alive and well: "It is guaranteed both as an integral part of the University's scholarly and religious heritage, and as an essential condition of effective inquiry and instruction. On a daily basis, DePaul faculty and students explore the most important ideas of our time, including difficult and contentious issues, and they do so in ways that adhere to professional standards of academia and respect the dignity and worth of each individual."

That theme runs through the letter written to Finkelstein by the President, the Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, who claims that Finkelstein's work is "deliberately hurtful." He adds that by taking the tone of advocacy, Finkelstein fails to meet the most fundamental requirements of sanctioned scholarship. Finkelstein should have done his work quietly, anonymously, without the overtones of engagement, as if "good" scholarship were to be left in the dark or pass without notice.

Finkelstein's contributions, however, are precisely those of public demonstration. His books are polemical and strident. A work like The Holocaust Industry, which is more of a pamphlet in tone, is glib and perhaps too casual. That is not to say that it, or any of his work, is wrong in fact, nor is it to say that the rhetorical style of his expression does not have a vital, and even necessary, place; particularly given the issues at hand. He is a trained historian working in the field of political science, after all. And yet DePaul, in the name of protecting its values and encouraging "diversity" [sic], apparently finds fault with openly approaching the ongoing circumstances of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict (as well as the echoes of the Holocaust that reverberate through our culture and shape responses to that conflict). It recoils at Finkelstein's willingness to make declarations, to undercut and expose the false claims of others, to lay bare functioning and pernicious myths, to arrive at and argue for conclusions based on that scholarship. It is true, he is impatient with the likes of Daniel Goldhagen, Joan Peters, and Tom Friedman. One might have argued that he was not sufficiently engaged in university service, that his many speaking engagements and New York residence kept him too far removed from the daily life of the campus. But those were not the criticisms. It was that his work was mean and political, that it was not to the level of quiet demanded by DePaul nor was it endorsed by the ADL.

The Reverend promises that the decision was made without taking into consideration such outside influences. Yet he too accuses Finkelstein of "ad hominen" attacks. That has been the key term in the public "debate" over Finkelstein engineered by Alan Dershowitz, another public figure whose work Finkelstein exposed. Its inclusion in the letter is perhaps an homage to Dershowitz, a way of acknowledging that the administration of DePaul seeks to be free of any retaliation for its prior affiliation with a man who dared challenge conventional and cliched commonsense, or what Finkelstein's analysis so often shows as simple non-sense.

The loss of tenure should not come as a surprise given the corporate concerns of the contemporary university, and while Finkelstein's reputation becomes the subject of media attention, one expects both he and his work will be better served by what comes next. As for those within the academy, watching the spectacle, DePaul's rejection might not be chilling for thought and scholarship (particularly on the Holocaust and Israel) but instead sharpen our own attention to the rhetorical dimensions of that scholarship, and the reach of inquiry in the face of inquisition. After all, it was Finkelstein's tone and posture on trial in this situation.

It is therefore tempting to list, side by side, quotations from the public writings of both Finkelstein and Dershowitz, but that would be a tired exercise. It is enough to ask who held to the "respect the dignity and worth of each individual"? Or perhaps we should say, who managed to use the space of a feud to further the insights warranted by the topics at hand, whether they be Holocaust survival and memory, Palestinian history, torture, human rights violations, international law, etc? There was only one. From Dershowitz there are the oft-repeated claims that Finkelstein is anti-Semitic and a collaborator with neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers; that he is the equivalent of David Duke; that even thinks his own mother was a Nazi collaborator; and that he argues for Dershowitz's assassination. This is the public tone of Harvard's distinguished professor of law.

On the other side, Finkelstein does call Dershowitz "prissy." He is also clearly dismissive of the open advocacy for torture and war crimes. As for the suggestion that Finkelstein calls for an assassination, one only need read the end of the article to see the rejection of such thinking for what it sanctions:

It is highly unlikely, however, that [Dershowitz] will ever be brought before a tribunal for his criminal incitement. But there is yet another possibility for achieving justice. Dershowitz is a strong advocate of targeted assassinations when "reasonable alternatives" such as arrest and capture aren't available. The conclusion seems clear -- if , and only if, -- one uses his standard and his reasoning. Of course, the preponderance of humanity, this writer [and CounterPunch, Eds.,] included, does not think this way. After all the hard-won gains of civilization, who would want to live in a world that once again legally sanctioned torture, collective punishment, assassinations and mass murder? As Dershowitz descends into barbarism, it remains a hopeful sign that few seem inclined to join him.
And of his mother's survival in the Warsaw Ghetto and a concentration camp, Finkelstein writes with great sensitivity to the demands of survival, and the aftermath of memory. Dershowitz claims Finkelstein betrays her with an accusation. What amount of spite generates the distortion given this excerpt, wherein what we read, if we read, is only a humane response of wonder and awe to a mother's awful experience? Finkelstein writes:
Except for allusions to relentless pangs of hunger, my mother never spoke about her personal torments during the war, which was just as well, since I couldn't have borne them. Like Primo Levi, she often said that, being "too delicate and refined, the best didn't survive." Was this an indirect admission of guilt? Much later in life I finally summoned the nerve to ask whether she had done anything of which she was ashamed. Calmly replying no, she recalled having refused the privileged position of "block head" in the camp. She especially resented the "dirty" question "How did you survive?" with the insinuation that, to emerge alive from the camps, survivors must have morally compromised themselves. Given how ferociously she cursed the Jewish councils, ghetto police and kapos, I assume my mother answered me truthfully. Although acknowledging that Jews initially joined the councils from mixed motives, she said that "only scum," reaping the rewards of doing the devil's work, still cooperated after it became clear that they were merely cogs in the Nazi killing machine. When queried why she hadn't settled in Israel after the war, my mother used to reply, only half in jest, that "I had enough of Jewish leaders!" The Jewish ghetto police always had the option, she said, of "throwing off their uniforms and joining the rest of us" -- a point that Yitzak Zuckerman, a leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, made in his memoir. (It was always gratifying to find my mother's seemingly erratic or harsh judgments seconded in the reliable testimonial literature.) Still shaking her head in disbelief, she would often recall how, after Jews in the ghetto used the most primitive implements or even bare hands to dig bunkers deep in the earth and conceal themselves, the Jewish police would reveal these hideouts to the Germans, sending their flesh-and-blood to the crematoria in order to save their own skins. One of the first acts of the ghetto resistance was to kill an officer in the Jewish police. On a sign posted next to his corpse -- my mother would recall with vengeful glee -- read the epitaph: "Those who live like a dog die like a dog." Still, if she didn't cross fundamental moral boundaries, I glimpsed from her manner of pushing and shoving in order to get to the head of a queue, which mortified me, how my mother must have fought Hobbes's war of all against all many a time in the camps. Really, how else would she have survived?

June 8, 2007

All Reason Lost

This week's 40th anniversary of Israel's 1967 war has brought a barrage of retrospection. Instead of re-affirming the myth of the miraculous victory over promised annihilation, the date has forced an acknowledgment of, if not a full reckoning with, a generation-long occupation with disastrous consequences for both the state of Israel and the Palestinians who have been held captive ever since. With no end in sight, there is only the slow creep of the disaster, one measured slab by slab of the West Bank's dissolution into containment walls and barbed-wired settlements. It is hard to imagine now that Israel will find any peaceful way to relinquish what it cannot conquer, recalling Thomas Jefferson's famous quote about the U.S. and slavery: "As it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. Justice is one scale, and self-preservation is in the other." Forty years after that comment, the country was on the eve of its Civil War.

In the U.S., Israeli-journalist Tom Segev's media tour has been the most prominent expression of this mood. He describes without qualification Israel's grave mistake in choosing occupation of the West Bank over all law, reason, national interest, or moral regard. Through interviews and an opinion piece in The New York Times (June 5, 2007) he outlines the signs the Eshkol government had for refusing the temptation of seizing East Jerusalem and the rest of the Jordan-controlled territories. That Israel gave into that temptation against its own intelligence was, he says with sad exasperation, an absolute "loss of reason." The push of euphoria, the seduction of fantasy, the bloody enthusiasm of victory turned the thrust of occupation into the myth of "liberation." Segev writes:

"[E]motions propelled the Israelis to act against their national interest. It may have been a series of threatening moves taken by Egypt, or it may have been the intoxication of victory, but in view of the results of the war there was indeed no justification for the panic that had preceded it, nor for the euphoria that took hold after it, which is what makes the story of Israel in 1967 so difficult to comprehend."

Segev's new book, 1967: Israel, the War and the Year That Transformed the Middle East, may provide more nuance than his interviews in explaining the panic that preceded the conflict with Egypt. Nasser's rhetoric of annihilation certainly inspired fear in Israelis, but one cannot, as Segev suggests, simply cite the personal letters that came from Israel during that time as if those letters, outside government declarations, expressed some unvarnished truth. Those letters surely borrow from the Holocaust language that saturated the public discourse in May of '67. It was a language that tried to give measure to the threat by invoking Auschwitz, and with the specter of the Shoah, justify a preventive war. It turned the historical destruction into a borrowed drama to be played again. That facts that Egypt was incapable of carrying out its threats and Jordan could be rebuffed without taking the West Bank dissolved in the rhetoric that replaced politics with ecstatic visions of death and deliverance.

June 6, 2007


"Is there not a growing conviction, clearer today among innumerable people, that the dying of people with whom we have nothing in common -- no racial kinship, no language, no religion, no economic interests -- concerns us? We obscurely feel that our generation is being judged, ultimately, by the abandon of the Cambodians, and Somalians, and the social outcasts in the streets of our own cities."

--Alphonso Lingis,
The Community of those who have
nothing in common

June 5, 2007


There is a man who works in a local bakery. You do not know his name and what you learn about him, his person, is limited to the span of an order, the money exchange, the taking of the small, white bag; all the wrinkles of routine. He is a presence of energy. The smile is bold, and not for you. He wears his baseball cap at a particular angle, always. He is immaculate in movements and dress. After many exchanges you might see how the ring like a horseshoe matches a horse figure on his watch, the combination of gold and diamonds playing off each other. When he is in a good mood he is pure performance of that mood: effusive and electric and alert to the world, as though your presence and the presence of the folks lined up behind you -- and they will come all morning -- has no bearing on his feeling for what is and the work, which is for himself and his comrades there. Other days he is sour and tired and there is no false pleasantness. He scours, shakes his head at your request. People remember him for this avid presence. Something tells you he is a father of small children and undaunted.

Then one morning he is not there. On the door of the bakery is a poster with his picture and the dates: January 1969 - May 2007. Otherwise, nothing has changed. The street is filled on a wet, warm Saturday. There are people in the bakery ordering, laughing, gathering over croissants and coffee. The staff is bereft but the customers there that day don't see it, or cannot recognize the connection between the poster and the mood. Maybe it is their first time. They cannot know the degrees of difference. It is a business and it is open. That is all. Even you have not yet moved from seeing the poster to appreciating the irrevocable absence inside when everything looks the same.

A girl behind the counter tells you in a subdued voice of shock that he was shot, and died. It takes two days for the information to appear as a three-line "story" in the newspaper, one in a listing of three city shootings that night: a man from a certain address killed in a late-night altercation at a certain intersection. It is two blocks from where he lived on Chicago's South Side.

The funeral gathering is large but the church is larger. There are pockets of people ranging from the family and what must be old friends to customers of the bakery to the great number of the staff there. The space between these groups shows the different dimensions of his encounters, some trying not to make a wrongful trespass others held apart from the absolute void of his death by what is happening all around them, all these people.

But there is a difference between not knowing and refusing to acknowledge. The Reverend has never met him, and if anyone has told him about the reason for this service he has not appreciated what they tried to communicate. His words, if not his intentions, are indifferent. They are a lifeless litany of assertions that have nothing to do with the life led, the man's four children, his mother, the absence that is now itself a part of the neighborhood of the bakery, a scar on the corner where he lived and died. It becomes an advertisement for the Church itself, crassly absorbed in its own "lessons" -- which seem so apart from the violence of the man's death and the realities of the lives spread out in that church. The Reverend seems not to recognize anything of the living and the dead as he moves through his habitual recitations, absolutely lacking in counsel.

What matters is the physical presence of the gathering: one woman wailing, the men bearing the coffin, the family moving so slowly and weak in white, the density of the people together on the sidewalk outside, pressed together by the demands of ritual and brought into close, unspeaking contact by the reach of his presence, now gone.

With the bakery's neighborhood, our neighborhood, it is diffuse, without the gravity of focus; passersby, rhythms of the day, the intersections of movements. It contains him, in the shadows. As people move through the space he once inhabited and defined, many will come to it oblivious and innocent while next to them someone else will feel, often without notice, the loss, which is both the lessening of where we dwell and an appreciation and acknowledgment of what it holds and held. That dispersal of feeling, degrees of knowing without mention is the silent strain of what is called, perhaps without proper feeling for the feelings in it, collective memory.

May 28, 2007

Beauty, Idealization, Consolation

In praise of avidity:

“Beauty is part of the history of idealizing, which is itself part of the history of consolation.”

--Susan Sontag

May 17, 2007

A Match with Ghosts

"We live only by lack of knowledge. Once we know, we are at odds with everything. As long as we are in ignorance, appearances prosper and preserve a flavor of inviolability which permits us to love and to hate them, to come to grips with them. How to match ourselves against ghosts? That is what appearances become when, disabused, we can no longer promote them to the rank of essences. Knowledge, or rather the waking state, produces between them and ourselves a hiatus which is not . . . a conflict; if it were, all would be well; no, this hiatus is the suppression of all conflicts, it is the deadly abolition of the tragic."

--E.M. Cioran, The Fall into Time

Morning light on water, before the struggle to make sense. So often the way the lake is alive with ripple and shadow, the changing, charging colors, and its play with the sky is lost to the day's obligations, which can seem so concrete and absolute and the absolute definition of being; work and concerns of knowing and deadlines for proving that one knows, something. The quicksilver appearances dim.

The temptation is to work first thing, thinking that it is there that the worst temptations are avoided. But the coming struggle to make that sense should always be there. It cannot be overturned by starting early. Rightfully, it will always and only be in a state unsettled; in the movements of light and shadow; in the tentative alliance of pen on paper; all those different kinds of light on all those different kinds of pages; the constant re-orientation of memory and expectation, desire and excitations never fulfilled but always hovering, pushing forward, as one moves through passages.

April 27, 2007

Before Darfur

Last month nine prominent men of letters placed their signatures at the close of a brief statement on Darfur. Their intent was to shame the European Union for celebrating its postwar unity while not doing more to punish the men of Khartoum. Recalling the Holocaust, they argued for the steadfast adherence to the spirit of "never again."

"The Europe which allowed Auschwitz and failed in Bosnia," they wrote, "must not tolerate the murder in Darfur. Europe is more than a network of the political classes, more than a first world economic club and a bureaucratic excrescence. It is an inherited culture which sustains our shared belief in the value and dignity of the human being. In the name of that common culture and those shared values, we call upon the 27 leaders to impose immediately the most stringent sanctions upon the leaders of the Sudanese regime."

Years before the celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy joined Havel, Habermas, Eco, and others in signing that statement, he had traveled to the heart of Sudan, literally the northern most point of the southern part of the nation, the land controlled by the SPLA (Sudan People's Liberation Army) and ravaged by the Sudanese government. From this trip emerged the essay, "The Pharoah and the Nuba," which appears in War, Evil, and the End of History (2002). There he wrote of meeting the then Sudanese resistance leader, John Garang. We read that Garang claims to read De Gaulle on resistance, and it is impossible to know if Levy is, as he has sometimes done elsewhere, embellishing in the course of his feverish prose. (He is often mocked for his Parisian affectations, his moralistic liberalism, and his falling for the seductions of U.S. power, and rightly so. But in spaces of extremity, his writing can sometimes manage to bring a Hunter S. Thompson quality to his witnessing; a truth wrapped in the abundance of style, and the impossibility of missing that the truth is a rhetorical construction, inseparable from the articulation itself).

In the essay he describes moving across scorched earth, past wretched refugees who are weaving with hunger. He sees, he tells us, the abandoned camps of NGOs driven out of their humanitarian hopes by the fighting, sees the craters left by the government's assaults on the rebels--where the "tactic" of bombing with oil barrels dumped out the back of an old Russian cargo plane got its start--and learns about the brutality of both sides caught in a ceaseless civil war; the true definition of a perpetual state of emergency.

Of the ghost city Gorgial, he performs the stammering gag of an encounter that will exceed his prose:

"This. . . . This desolation. . . . This desert. . . . These little piles of mud which had been houses. . . . These bricks with which they've made bunkers. . . . These fires. . . . These tents. . . . These nests of snakes. . . . This filth. . . . This rotting smell of shit and corpses intermingled. . . . These weird dogs, too fat, who are no longer afraid of humans. . . . "

And there, the child-soldiers. From Gorgial, he moves on to the Nuba mountains where children not only fight, but too often die or disappear, the remaining people are cut off, rounded up into "peace camps" controlled by the government, bombed, and are often left starving. There, the "system" of Darfur's disaster was first apparent in the total war of containment, destruction, and "famine as a weapon."

To the squadron leader, Abdel Aziz Adam al-Halu, Levy brings a book of photographs. They are of the Nuba. They were taken by the infamous Nazi propagandist, Leni Riefenstahl, in the 1970s. The series of lush images she created was one gesture in her career of rehabilitation; rightly undone by Susan Sontag in the scathing essay, "Fascinating Fascism."

Picturing Riefenstahl picturing the Nuba the way she does seems surreal now, as if it captured a moment equidistance between two disasters--long after the European and just before the dawn of the ravages Levy encountered later in their green-hilled graveyard. There the faint remains of a people; once more than a million, reduced to three-hundred thousand: oil interests, the slave trade, the war. Always these lists. . . Like Levy's bile-choking response to Gorgial.

The squadron commander, Aziz, however, begins to leaf through the book of images, "as if it were familiar to him," as if the image-maker of one destruction had somehow managed to salvage a slice of immortality for others damned to a similar fate as European Jews. Of course. The memory of a time annihilated surely emerged, prompted by those scandalous photographs, now transplanted to Aziz like epitaphery. The children die of "forgotten illnesses they no longer know how to cure," but he tells Levy his memories of the many languages spoken, the rituals, the culture living in the people, the people who are now dying before his eyes, while on the page they remain caught in the gaze of the propagandist. What sustenance, then, do the images deliver in a realm without living archives outside the damaged and diminished bodies.

Soon after that encounter, the world would mourn the bombed Buddhas of Bamyan while the Nuba obscurely died. Now men of letters sign a letter of protest. Instead of that proclamation, perhaps this earlier signature from Levy, from a site too much like but not-yet-named, Darfur:

"'Look what they've done to us,' Aziz murmurs, leafing through the book. 'Look.' It's the photos he's showing . . . the legendary Nuba in well-composed photos, by the filmmaker. But it's the others he wants me to look at, the real Nuba, his own, with their emaciated faces, their rags, who no doubt seem to him, at this instant, the shadow of these shadows. But his officers . . . come very close, very close to the photos, so they can admire them too; the children also come closer and slip, very excited, among the squadron leaders; the teacher comes close too, and even the peasant who had climbed up on the wing of the plane to help the pilot recharge his fuel and who chuckles with joy at the sight of these elder brothers, naked and scarified. I look very carefully at what Aziz wanted me to look at: together, almost superimposed, the shadows and the shadows of the shadows. But I see the opposite in them, it seems to me, of what he was inviting me to see. Not the degeneration of icons. But, miracle of art or of life, I don't know, a stubborn faithfulness to the finest quality the photos had, of which, I'm sure they have only captured a vibration; a force risen from the depth of the ages; an indomitable courage that, today as well as yesterday, emanates from these ashen faces; miserable, abandoned, pawns for all the governments, the great forgotten ones of this forgotten war, men whose tragic grandeur compels us all the more since their disappearance wouldn't affect the world's economy in the least."

The solider and the children, the teacher and the humanitarian aid worker, a pilot and a peasant, a journalist-philosopher and soldiers, cannon fire in the distance and those infamous photos at the center, things turning into their opposite, and what was once claimed as an aesthetic rendering of the immemorial grace of power is now another kind of scarification, and the promise that what we witness here is "indomitable courage" is in fact, its opposite, a condition that cannot be gathered up in the language of the traveler: an unnameable struggle to hold to a being that can cast a shadow, any shadow, despite the bombs and camps and disease and all those other investments of the world's economy and senses.

April 17, 2007

The Grubbing Reach

Little remains of Theodor Adorno's 1949 declaration that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” and that “this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today.” L'art pour l'art found its parallel paralysis in a "self-satisfied contemplation."

Adorno himself tempered that early postwar claim in Negative Dialectics (1966):

Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living—especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living. His mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz; this is the drastic guilt of him who was spared. By way of atonement he will be plagued by dreams such as that he is no longer living at all, that he was sent to the ovens in 1944 and his whole existence since has been emanation of the insane wish of a man killed twenty years earlier.
If Adorno was simply refining the question of what survival meant--for individuals as well culture--he had also been reading Paul Celan's attempts to ground art in the uncertain realities of the Holocaust's wreckage.

As Adorno would later remark, Celan's extreme discretion results in a poetic extension of critical engagement. His voice is that of "the dead speaking of stones and stars," the coldness here not of a self-satisfied subjectivity, but of horror's remains. The sharded bits of broken testimony transpose into linguistic processes the increasing abstractions of landscape. In other words the coldness of nature becomes the destruction (and hope) of language.

Celan described his attempt to give a topographical weight to his poetry this way:
They are the efforts of someone who, overarced by stars that are human handiwork, and who, shelterless in this till now undreamt–of sense and thus most uncannily in the open, goes with his very being to language, stricken by and seeking reality.
Crafting language that would work against the grain of mere speech and the given world was in order, he says, “to orient myself, to find out where I was and where I was meant to go, to sketch out reality for myself.” As a poet seeking some path other than the accustomed formulation, he is perfectly in line with Adorno's argument that ensuring Auschwitz never returns requires, above all, “the power of reflection, of self-determination, of not cooperating.”

Such claims for language as interior guidance play out in the very descriptions of landscapes Celan makes into burial grounds. These are reflections of the world that devoured the human body and are in turn devoured by memory, interiorized, ingested as the ashen remains of season and history. In Celan there looms the promise of an eventual, choking drowning, deepinsnow, or in the waves of a night sky, icy and indifferent.

The uncertainty of what language might yield of the strickening reality leaves the poet afloat, alive to the suffering:

like memory's wound,
the eyes grub toward you
in a Crownland bitten
bright by heart's teeth--
it remains our bed:

through this shaft you must come--
you come.

In the seed's
the sea stars you out, innermost, for ever.

An end to the granting of names,
over you I cast my fate.”

Grubbing eyes, instinctual and blind in the soil, reach toward. A bed of burial and bliss. The lostness of the universe, for ever. From within the tumult there remains the necessary search across the cold sky of signs; searches for the bearings of constellations from the convolutions of troubled perspective. But in spite of it all, or because of all, there is a meeting. You come.

The Polish survivor Tadeusz Borowski ( best known for his searing portrait of a death factory, This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen) adopts nothing like Celan's silent scream. His poetry holds together two ideas without the stringent arrangements. First, the plaintive appeal to the sky, as if there were some escape in the simple play of light and vision, as if love could move one past "the circumstances." Celan touches the choking earth, while Borowski seems to recall the touch of the lover, the outside. But such gestures of an otherwise come always from within the camp's stain. Consequently, the blurring spectrum of seasons and sea colors in the clouds is the collapse of times, selves, deaths, and memories.

“You remember the sun of Auschwitz
and the green of the distant meadows, lightly
lifted to the clouds by birds,
no longer green in the clouds,
but seagreen white. Together
we stood looking into the distance and felt
the far away green of the meadows and the clouds'
seagreen white whithin us,
as if the colour of the distant meadows
were our blood or the pulse
beating within us, as if the world
existed only through us and nothing changed
as long as we were there. I remember
your smile as elusive
as a shade of the colour of the wind,
a leaf trembling on the edge
of sun and shadow, fleeting
yet always there. So you are
for me today, in the seagreen
sky, the greenery and
the leaf-rustling wind. I feel
you in every shadow, every movement,
and you put the world around me
like your arms. I feel the world
as your body, you look into my eyes
and call me with the whole world.”

(“The Sun of Auschwitz”)

Two poems from the land of loss: history's stark coldness and the world's continuation in relief. Between the two poets we see the flux of the look, and the laying out of a language that holds to the changed world, and, as Adorno felt necessary, the truer, tentative sense of the strickening reality.

March 29, 2007

Going Under: Six-Feet High and Rising

What verb would carry the tension of moving across the streets of Cairo, Illinois? It isn't a space you can simply drive through, pass through, or site-see since the sites are enough to singe your sight; the cliche about seared images finds its truth in that modern catastrophic space. Route 51, neglected, takes you into there, past the waves of social and political abandonment. Gas stations are closed if not rusted, lots lie in rot, and there is one busy liquor store with barred windows. The warehouses and brick structures close to the river are large, towering, crumbling. Poised between the Mississippi and Ohio, whose commercial life has by-passed it, the landscape is a surreal mix of lush land, rural decline, and the aftermath of late-sixties race riots, as if Watts had been set down in the middle of Kansas in 1965 and left, all but forgotten. The difference is that the race war in Cairo, the last segregated city in Illinois, and already all-but left to its fate, lasted years.

Beyond the broken remains of the race-madness nightmare, the scale of the town that should hold 20,000 and now has a population only 2,000, makes it impossible to comprehend initially. It is rare that in America a traveler has to construct a narrative for what is encountered. We've become accustomed to so much sameness, readily apprehending the smallest degrees of difference in an eye's reach. The only word that comes to mind in the context of Cairo is: plague.

Still, those 2000 people do live there. You see them clearly against that vast backdrop of broken brick structures. Boys are playing basketball on grass-invested asphalt; a man in his 40s walks with purpose; families sit on their porches in the day's dimming sun; teens gather in the liquor store parking lot; a windowless building named "Club 51" promises dancers, and you can only think of the pretty girls in that parking lot and what it is they might otherwise do way out there in the middle of farmland and swamped by those huge rivers.

And how long before the following occurs:

To enter the city you pass through a tunnel that goes under the railroad. Hanging above the entrance to the tunnel is a huge blue steel gate. The land outside of town (mostly farm land) is also protected by levees. But, should the pressure on the Cairo levees become too great, the city drops the gate at the back end of town and then dynamites either the Ohio or Mississippi levee further up. This drastic action allows the flood water to pour out over thousands of acres of farm land and so relieve the pressure on the city levee. At that point Cairo becomes a sunken island surrounded on all sides by nearly sixty feet of water. The scheme of a lunatic no doubt. Some day the rivers will win.
We have our own Old Testament tales to borrow from if need be. After reading the scenario above, how not to reach for a post-Tsunami image from Taryn Simon (above)? Or one of her post-Katrina images (below)?

A cataclysmic exposure saturates and spills over the imagination, starting a process of absorbing the future encounters with misery and the dreadful, lending some sense in the wake of the troubling and troubled passage through a landscape of floods past and future. But if there is another haunting in making some claim to having been haunted by what we witness, it is the sensation that the images overlaid and the meanings lent are insufficient, our confluence of the two a wrongful cultivation. The metaphors of flood and destruction and the dire consequences of poverty are temptations better laid aside.

The goal then is to hold at once to the unknowing bewilderment and anguish of the original seeing and the discovery of a language and analysis that will do justice.

March 18, 2007

More than the Eye Can See

Explaining why she shoots in 4x5 negatives, photographer Taryn Simon says that those large, now antiquated, light-sensitive membranes capture more than the eye can see. Light passes onto the film only to be pushed back through in the dark room. This breathing of light births a "reality" beyond that which was apprehended at the time of the shutter's release. Thus we encounter more than could have otherwise been seen and Simon explains that such luminous expressions ideally lead to large prints on a museum's white walls (her new work is currently at the Whitney). Removed from the political and purposeful, she says, the images are, as art.

Given the meticulous preparation required while working with a bellows camera, as a matter of ethos Simon eschews the contemporary digital habit of preserving all manner of shapes, textures, and moments. I've never stolen an image, she says. She is referring not only to the kind of pictures that are flooding onto Flickr (almost always some 2,000 a minute) but also to the long tradition of the street photographer whose lightweight (Leica) apparatus is always at the ready, poised for the quick-click gesture that seizes a moment's composition.

Simon's subjects are therefore not seized, but co-authors in her work (like the men who at long last were proven innocent of crimes wrongly attributed to them by the force of surveillance and photographic evidence).

If the spaces of her current project (An American Index to the Hidden and Unfamiliar) are remote, obscure, and otherwise unseen realms, this is no Farm Security Administration documentary project intent on bringing facts to light. Her entries into zones that are out of sight are always accommodations. She works her way in and creates. And yet there is an abundance of vision to be found through her large negatives--rendering something beyond the reality she thought she finds, the art of the image breathed into being.

While she claims that craft and removal from ideological "use" constitute her work as art, the fragile excess of the negative surely suggests something of the archive's spirit for interested knowing. Here art feeds history. Traces of the imperceptible forge the tentative alliance between past and present as meaning waits to be discovered. The images are thus proximate as images, bringing their subject matter close and imbued with affect, but also moving away, as if holding their essence in reserve.

Unlike Simon's precise compositions, the Flickr phenomenon suggests something monstrous with its vast excesses. There, instead of the fine (artistic) vision of the discerning look, we enter an accumulating archive: images in an ever-heaping presentation. They come in a constant wave: cats and babies, post-industrial settings and graffiti, self-portraits, proms, party poses, and the odd, forgotten objects. Trolling through this proliferation, it is easy to think of Susan Sontag's On Photography and her call therein for an economy of the image. She wanted to slow down the desperate need to mark experience with its banal, touristy traces.

But what is striking in much of the current photography circulating is the degree to which it announces the experience itself. It is not a placeholder of some "time," but it is. And what it is, at the same moment, is deeply formulaic. The pictures posted and shared, whether in the irrepressible smooth clarity of the those using Canon cameras or the muted, aged quality of the Polaroid compositions--often coupled in evocative diptychs--is evidence that we are drawn to seeing the world in a particular way; our sight, like some expression of collective memory, moving along well worn lines, waiting for the history to emerge from the abundance and grant a glimpse of the excessive and elusive meaning.

March 3, 2007

The Look a Line Contains

Not simply re-reading, but reading as remembrance, with a sense of the inherited layers: measuring the difference between working through W. H. Auden’s canonical poem about “suffering” reduced to “some untidy spot” today and the first time those words were found, twenty years ago. Then it was there to be read precisely because of its canonical status. Still, it immediately struck a nerve of sense. Done with Donne, the romantic bramble cut through, all of Pound’s impossible allusions cast aside, none of Bishop’s demanding banality. Half of a page in the middle of the introductory anthology, it stood plain, clear, and contained.

A boy falls from the sky and the ship sails on. The world’s living textures were all so imaginable—the waxen wings gone and the bare boy legs just there in the boat’s white wake.
It was read then on a campus in Santa Barbara, probably in between classes, and there in the plaza outside the library, all around the pavement radiated back the warmth of the slow sunny afternoon. It is easy to recollect such days; the lightness of a backpack, the easy pace, wearing the ratty Converse, a Madness t-shirt, a small, discrete band of leather around the wrist instead of a watch. That talisman was brought back as a gift from Colombia by a girl named Booker whose father was Dutch and mother from South America. (There is a way of inquiring into the transatlantic paths that brought such people together but I didn't know anything about that then.)
Sitting in the sun on a wide campus, the textures of daily life were more important than text itself, and certainly more important than figuring out what it might mean that Auden was showing something essential in the citing of Breughel, or what it might mean for him to be in Brussels in 1938: where and when one could buy a postcard of King Leopold III as a pilot adventurer; when the war was coming over the horizon, just a month after Kristallnacht had burned its warning into the Jews of Germany; where and when Paul de Man was himself just a restless student earning a degree in chemistry, two years before he would write collaborationist pieces for Le Soir promoting the rigors of a scientific treatment of literature, and long before he would create the textual alchemy that tried to make history, even his own, disappear into impossible translation.

Auden felt clear then, and he feels right now. The failure of apprehension is common enough, more so when the sun shines or the business at hand turns the eye from other recognitions. So it was that
the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy failing out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Now that it is a colder time, another life being lived, it is easier to hear how such poems gather memories upon them. The words carry their meanings but also the strange and uncanny affects of all those other times, places, and ways of encountering them. Instead of the anthology with its decontextualized, sterilized and fossilized exhibit, now “Musée des Beaux Arts” is seen in its rightful place. It is needed to make sense of the cold currents through which the expensive and delicate sail. So spurred by a reference in another work, one is lead to the volume of collected Auden, where the tale of Icarus is adjacent to a poem called grounded in the date and season of its creation, “Brussels in Winter”:
Wandering through cold streets tangled like old string,
Coming on fountains rigid in the frost,
The certainty that constitutes a thing.

Only the old, the hungry and the humbled
Keep at this temperature a sense of place,
And in their misery are all assembled;
The winter holds them like an Opera-House

Ridges of rich apartments loom to-night
Where isolated windows glow like farms,
A phrase goes packed with meaning like a van,

A look contains the history of man,
And fifty francs will earn a stranger right
To take the shuddering city in his arms.
W. G. Sebald instills such lessons of looking for that history, of looking for the history of man in each look out and back. The past is continually there in both the obvious traces of the photographs he so often uses, but it also saturates his works in the form of other works inherited, absorbed until they form a filter of seeing.

It is common to think of the memories of reading held in marginalia or annotations; underlinings making declarations. The richer sense of the past's return comes through the accreted associations with the words themselves, or the way we create the stories for pictures or the pictures for the stories and then take notice of the world, staring meaning into it.

This kind of memory is necessary, Sebald says, because “it is hard to discover / the winged vertebrates of prehistory / embedded in tablets of slate.” Unlike the absent fossil of the natural world, man’s history is written in a thousand carved scars of the earth, or in each tiny cringe before the self-mutilating memory. It can be seen and felt. It is in the dream of Icarus before that fall, “sailing in the midst of / the currents of light.” Earthbound, it is the great hoping “perhaps” that mirrors his flight, the possibility “you’ll see a golden coast / a land veneered with rain or / a schoolboy on his way home / over a beautiful meadow.” It is likewise in this passage’s echo of Auden; a memory that the suffering is hidden in those brief spells of necessary recovery, which is the mind’s work itself, a small, tentative flight waiting to be hatched.