January 25, 2007

Ryszard Kapuscinski

Ryszard Kapuscinski, 1932-2007.

There could be something here about his book on Iran, Shah of Shahs, something instructing us still about human folly with deadly consequences. But rightfully, some fragments from the title more apt, Another Day of Life, his chronicle of Angola's 1975 descent into war:

As a sick person suddenly revives and recovers his strength for a moment in the midst of his agony, so, at the end of September, life in Luanda took on a certain vigor and tempo. The sidewalks were crowded and traffic jams clogged the streets. People ran around nervously, in a hurry, wrapping up thousands of matters. Clear out as quickly as possible, escape in time, before the first wave of deadly air intrudes upon the city. . . . Everybody was busy building crates. Mountains of boards and plywood were brought in. The price of hammers and nails soared. Crates were the main topic of conversation--how to build them, what was the best thing to reinforce them with. Self-proclaimed experts, crate specialists, masters of crate styles, crate schools, and crate fashions appeared. . . . The richer the people, the bigger the crates they erected. . . . The crates of the wealthy stand in the main downtown streets or in the shadowy byways of exclusive neighborhoods. You can look at them and admire. The crates of the poor on the other hand languish in entranceways, in backyards, in sheds. They are hidden for the time being, but in the end they will have to be transported the length of the city to the port, and the thought of that pitiful display is unappetizing.

* * * *

All the garbagemen have left! . . .
The odor was unbearable. I walked through the city dripping with sweat, holding a handkerchief to my nose. Dona Cartagina said the prayers against pestilence. There were no doctors, and not a single hospital or pharmacy remained open. The garbage grew and multiplied like the rising of a monstrous, disgusting dough expanding in all directions, impelled by a poisonous deadly yeast.
Later, when all the barbers, repairmen, mail carriers, and concierges had left, the stone city lost its reason for existing, its sense. It was a like a dry skeleton polished by the wind, a dead bone sticking up out of the ground toward the sun.

* * * *

The next prisoner looks twelve. He says he's sixteen. He knows it is shameful to fight for the FNLA, but they told him that if he went to the front they would send him to school afterward. He wants to finish school because he wants to paint. If he could get a paper and pencil he could draw something right now. he could do a portrait. He also knows how to sculpt and would like to show his sculptures, which he left in Carmona. He has put his whole life into it and would like to study, and they told him that he will, if he goes to the front first. He knows how it works--in order to paint you must first kill people, but he hasn't killed anyone.

* * * *

Someone finally does strike, the other side replies, dust rises from the earth, the dance of fire and death begins. Pablo walks around giving orders and checking supplies like a boy with candles on Christmas Eve. I walk behind him taking pictures. They all want to be photographed. Me now, me now, camarada, me, meeeeeeee! They stand rigidly and some of them salute. To leave a trace, to fix themselves, to remain somehow. I was here, just yesterday, he took a picture, yes, that's how I looked. That's the kind of face I had as a live man. I stand before you at attention: Look at me for a moment before you turn to something else.

* * * *

Asked about the situation, [Felix] answers tersely: Confusao.
Confusao is a good word, a synthesis word, an everything word. In Angola it has its own specific sense and is literally untranslatable. To simplify things: Confusao means confusion, a mess, a state of anarchy and disorder. Confusao is a situation created by people, but in the course of creating it they lose control and direction, becoming victims of confusao themselves. There is a sort of fatalism in confusao. A person wants to do something, but it falls to pieces in his hands; he wants to set something in motion, but some power paralyzes him; he wants to create something, but he produces confusao. Everything crosses him; even with the best will in the world, he falls over and over into confusao. Confusao can overwhelm our thinking, and then others will say that the person has confusao in his head. It can steal into our hearts, and then our girls dump us. It can explode in a crowd and sweep through a mass of people--then there is fighting, death, arson. Sometimes confusao takes a more benign form in which it assumes the character of desultory, chaotic, but bloodless haggling.

* * * *


. . . I knew that things were going badly, I wanted to learn the details from him, but at the same time I didn't feel up to asking him questions that would hurt. So there was silence and then I said goodbye and left.
In the evening I brush off my mildewed suit and put on a tie: I'm returning to Europe.

January 21, 2007


In his 1956 German translation of the narration for the Alain Resnais film, Night and Fog, the poet Paul Celan makes a defining shift in the text of Jean Cayrol. Throughout the film, Cayrol, who survived Mauthausen, uses Resnais's assembled images to draw a portrait of the Third Reich's totalitarian aims, its elimination of enemies. At its close, as Resnais shows in a slowly panning color shot of the ruins of the Birkeneau crematoria, Cayrol asks, if one is right to assume the "old concentrary monster [le vieux monstre concentrationnaire]" were truly dead. Celan shifts the subject of the film from Nazi crimes against its adversaries to the destruction of European Jews when he changes the subject of Cayrol's sentence from concentrationnaire to Rassen-wahn, or race-madness.

As Celan biographer and translator John Felstiner notes, Celan otherwise strictly avoided using the word "race" with its Nazi stain.

That word and its attendant madness echoed yesterday with the widely reported news that Turkish journalist Hrant Dink was shot to death in front of the office of his weekly Turkish-Armenian paper, Argos. Just over a year ago, Dink, of Armenian descent, had been found guilty of "anti-Turkishness" for his insistence on recognizing the genocide of Armenians in 1915. As Robert Fisk reported in The Independent yesterday, Dink had long struggled to reconcile his homeland of Turkey and his Armenian background, working to find a language that would speak to both:

He did not like a line in the Turkish national anthem that refers to "my heroic race". He did not like singing that line, he said, "because I was against using the word 'race', which leads to discrimination."
Those rightfully calling for the recognition of that crime can invoke Hitler as the warning against forgetting. Often quoted is his speech regarding Germany's impending "settlement" of Poland in 1939, wherein he is said to spit out the rhetorical question, "Who after all is today speaking about the destruction of the Armenians?" But there is a deeper and more troubling link between Turkey and Germany. And so Turkey's trouble with its own past came long before Dink's murder or EU pressure to repeal laws forbidding expression and supporting denial. In fact, the European influence on Turkey, which needed notions of difference and discrimination to come into being, can be traced back to the late 19th century when the concept of Turkishness sought its models in the German Volk and its rationale in the writings of Arthur de Gobineau.

Seen from this perspective, Dink's vulnerability seems to have come less from the fact that he publicly espoused an "Armenian position" than the fact that he sought a logic beyond the old "racial" divides and the accumulated rage born of the long silence.

Again, as Fisk points out:
"At the time of his trial, Dink appeared on Turkish television in tears. "I'm living together with Turks in this country," he said then. "And I'm in complete solidarity with them. I don't think I could live with an identity of having insulted them in this country." It is a stunning irony that Dink had accused his fellow Armenians in an article of allowing their enmity towards the Turks for the genocide to have a "poisoning effect on your blood" -- and that the court took the article out of context and claimed he was referring to Turkish blood as poisonous.
His killer's confession turns on perception that Dink had insulted Turkish "blood." The metaphor moves from Dink's figurative usage through the surely fated misreading to the supposedly actual sting of murder-inspiring insult. And so, again, as always, the language of blood continues its mad course.

January 18, 2007

The Allure of Eichmann

This week Haaretz published a brief review of a panel discussion held at the Massuah Institute, a Holocaust education center at Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak. The subject was the clandestine capture of Adolf Eichmann, who was famously abducted in Argentina in the spring of 1960 and flown to Israel to stand trial. The title of the piece uses the words delivering the great news to David Ben-Gurion: "The monster is in handcuffs."

The incantation of Eichmann's monstrosity infused his trial and the climate of its necessity gave leverage to the dismissal or assault on Hannah Arendt's now canonical coverage of the proceedings, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. That subtitle, of course, comes from the book's closing passage. There, Arendt, seemingly worn out with Eichmann's relentless retreat into meaningless language and immoral imperatives, refers to the "fearsome, word-and-thought-defying" condition that he represented. The banality was not in the deeds but in the cheap philosophizing behind them.

In the Israeli atmosphere of charged rhetoric and national need, however, the description of Eichmann as a symbol--a monstrosity instead of a man--was so misread as to be effectively unread. Arendt thus became the voice of the enemy, accused of self-hatred and anti-Semitism. Even four years after the trial and two years after the appearance of her book, one Yiddish writer described her as doing the devil's bidding. For Aron Zeitlin, only the most extreme language of monstrous murderers and murdered saints (Zadikkim) was possible. Anything deviating from that script was an assault. As a consequence, Arendt was seen by too many as defending evil itself.

The refusal to read Arendt's judgment on Eichmann, or her analysis of the social systems within which even certain Jewish community leaders operated, certainly stems from a variety of impulses that follow the path suggested by Zeitlin. It was precisely such gestures that Arendt addressed through later works, whether in The Life of the Mind or her lectures on Kant's third critique. In a postscript to the former she writes, "Judgment deals with particulars, and when the thinking ego moving along generalities emerges from its withdrawal and returns to the world of particular appearances, it turns out that the mind needs a new 'gift' to deal with them." In other words, it is not so easy to deal with things historically: an inquiry in order to tell how things were (historein). One, at the very least, needs the gift.

The headline of the Haaretz article repeats the formula of Eichmann as the monster, but it nonetheless ends with another perversion of the Arendt thesis. The last words reported are the "electrifying and graphic"
testimony by former Mossad agent Yaakov Meidad, who says, "You would not believe what a wimp he was, how he signed, how he behaved. This man dealt in the murder of millions. I would hardly appoint him to manage a post office."

And so here the banality becomes an insult and a rejoicing comparison. Eichmann cannot be left alone even as he cannot be faced. Celebration of the Mossad's muscular daring eclipses what should give one pause, and for a brief moment at least, defy word and thought. The allure is too much to resist.

January 11, 2007

The Necessary Consolation

A table space cluttered with books and papers, notebooks and pens and pencils for underlining. A window before it overlooks rooftops. There are children in the museum on the horizon, cars small and constant on Lakeshore Drive, garbage men lifting the heavy stench of the curbed cans on the block below, tired people scattered in the commuter trains that make the dull sound of metal scraping as they slide by; appearance measures out the time. The world is at work. The trucks throttle and roar, beep when they back up. Another train passes, this one heading south.

And at the table, the flirtations with thought occur just apart from that hive of activity; apart from and still a part of the world. Up here there is the sound of typing, writing, a page turned, and miraculously, the constant presence the cats. There is a wonderful tradition of the cat and the desk and it is a great lesson to turn from the focus and find them assuming some position, pose or slant-eyed gaze. Nothing tormented, but nothing vague and easy, either. Their presence is in the heavy sighs of sleep, the other's bold morning meows of enthusiasm becoming a deep, vibrating purr. It has become impossible not to think of them as endorsing these efforts to think, to translate solitude out of solitude, to take in the world and remake it in some tentative, active understanding.

At the same time they are the counter-balance to the absorbing retreat and delusion. They are constantly in motion or at rest, so purely so that they captivate and claim a different register of our attention. As love objects, they pacify and expose.

In the close of her preface to Writing is an Aid to Memory, Lyn Hejinian writes, "Though we keep company with cats and dogs, all thoughtful people are impatient, with a restlessness made inevitable by language."

Yes, language imposes itself as an object in the world, a stone to which are we bound, or which we try forever to roll up a hill, or from which we hammer out a figure hunched and restless, head set upon a fist. "In a full and extensive solitude / I do not understand" Hejinian reminds.

But the cat and the dog, the living creature at peace or fret, seeking the place of rest, exploring the corner of the room, stretching out under the desk-lamp light, imploring our hand, offer up the without of language, brief cure for its anxieties. So one may be impatient and stricken with whatever does not materialize in, or yield to, thought (as it seems, too many think it simple to think, as if reading what is were a matter of common God-given sensations). The animal reminds that this is all a way of existence, and that beside it the small overtures to touch the word, if genuine, constitute, beside the cat on the desk, "a place in the world where breathes the truest sympathy, the most sincere compassion for all the diverse facets of the heart." With those words the French philosopher Jean Grenier, in his essay on his cat, Mouloud, argues for the permanence of patience in the presence of struggles to know.

Describing an attic room where he worked and Mouloud would set his paws against the page, the lesson of the creature is a blissful, joyous attention, including the interruptions and pauses for paws and scratches and movements to other windows and their frames of reference. The object is not as important as the attitude with which it is approached. The greedy cat of a city alley angling for scraps and survival is not, he says, as properly placed as a cat in an apartment appointed with a corner stove and a window overlooking canals, a space from which to watch the boatmen carry on. Our studies, he says, like the cats' watching, is a way of living in the world:

"There is nothing better for enduring the coming days than sitting down for several hours at any odd subject. Renan persistently studied his Hebrew dictionary every morning and this brought him the consolation necessary to live. I do not believe that 'studies' can have any other interest. Everything one can learn is contemptible, but it is not contemptible to learn the game of patience which allows us to await our end."

January 5, 2007

Further Notes on Letters

"Writing letters is actually an intercourse with ghosts, and by no means just with the ghost of the addressee but also with one's own ghost, which secretly evolves inside the letter one is writing."

--Franz Kafka

Kafka tells Milena Jesenska he is her best reader and still we see the constant claim of misunderstanding. Letters pass one another en route so one's response is always a step behind. She writes to him in pencil, surely a sign of hesitancy, he apologizes for an emotional eruption, retracting reproaches.

There is a lesson in ethics in the writing of letters: true letters of pen onto paper, the kind that are kept boxed, their postmarks, odd stamps, choices of stationary, the kind of pen itself, handwriting style, the place of sending, all announcing the historical scene of their composition. There must be trust in phronesis, that judgment in reception that is open and discerning enough to see at once the truth and its ephemeral dating, its appearance, already passed, nothing but the possibility of a ghostly return, which as Kafka says, is the condition which binds the letter's I and Thou.

If not trust, then, at least that hope for some relation that is recognition without appropriation or distortion or cynical manipulation. The comforting old trivium of the boy--Dedalus's silence, exile, and cunning--must eventually give way to the ghostway of being in the world, narrating what will yield to language and sending it off, under way for some future finding.