December 27, 2008

Without Exit

Tom Segev's bitter commentary in Haaretz today attempts to tie the restrictive weight of history to the momentum of the ongoing Gaza seize. There is nothing new here, he says, as if the past disasters could possibly serve to illuminate the present rather than explain its necessity. Bombardment as enlightenment-styled punishment of the barbarians, the attempt to create a particular political perspective in a sphere beyond control, the anxious moral blindness of claiming "self-defense."

To that he may have added the compulsion to act out of the need to avoid passivity. And to that the desire to beat back the specter that says all failures were the result of prior restraint. As Segev writes, "[the one] historical truth worth recalling in this context: Since the dawn of the Zionist presence in the Land of Israel, no military operation has ever advanced dialogue with the Palestinians."

As Ehud Barak promises to kill this ghost of Lebanon, to employ the necessary excess, to stop at nothing to eliminate Hamas rocket fire, the rockets reach further into Israel.

Segev's comments are brief. One suspects he cannot bear to say too much more. For what? He has written too much already to too little effect. The stories of the 7th million, the dangerous deliriums of 1967, the summer of 2006, and still now, yet again, it plays out deadly and heartbreaking: the return to the grotesque place without exit. Surely he feels his words strangled.

It was, then, in another newspaper piece that recently appeared where, perhaps, a more appropriate idea came for thinking about these "dark times." It was not about the long conflict, its brutality and senselessness, but about the now dead playwright Harold Pinter. It was about the subtle play between idea, word, and proximity; people trapped with each other.

In his encomium, Ariel Dorfman praised Pinter's artistic treatment of a fundamental recognition -- that political plights came from the intimate turns of language, the trembling distance between people bound together in tight quarters; where words build brittle bridges, all too many of which are blown. There may not have been commentary on historical and political events in those early plays, Dorfman writes,

And yet, by trapping us inside the lives of those men and women, Pinter was revealing the many gradations and degradations of power with a starkness I had not noticed before in other authors who were supposedly dedicated to examining or denouncing contingent politics. All power, all domination and liberation started there, he seemed to be saying, in those claustrophobic rooms where each word counts, each slight utterance needs to be accounted for, is paid for in some secret currency of hope or suffering. You want to free the world, humanity, from oppression? Look inside, look sideways, look at the hidden violence of language. Never forget that it is in language where the other parallel violence, the cruelty exercised on the body, originates.

The shouts of protest, the statements of statesmen, the editorial endorsements and cries of rightful outrage seem so far from what is actually being exchanged with that "secret currency" of need and evil.

December 25, 2008


December 24, 2008

A Promise of Miracle

Arvo Part:

December 21, 2008

Arctic hysteria

Outside, dead white and bitter. Inside the old brick building, dense and thick and protecting,storm windows dropped, insulated, and tight, there is steam heat running through the walls. A fire burns in the fireplace and no shortage of wood. There are lights brightening many corners; the electrical current wholly shapes the space. Still, it is possible to feel the faintest thread cold that blows in, somehow, like an ominous whisper.

Eliot Weinberger writes of living amongst the dynamic lifelessness of ice. He describes the point at which the mind of the hunter in the kayak off the coast of Greenland--forced to hunt ahead of the coming winter-- can no longer keep the immensity of the threat from the thickening, darkening water from devouring their consciousness. They never go out onto the sea again.

"The landscape is always changing. The icebergs are always moving. They calve, drift, suddenly flip over. The ice is alive. It creaks, groans, grinds, trickles, gurgles, drips, thumps. Sea slaps it; wind howls through its hollows."

He writes of Arctic hysteria: nineteenth-century seamen leaping mad from their ships, huddled in tents, delirious and paranoid.

He repeats the story told in Greenland of three men who set out to know the world and come across an igloo. They are unable to escape it. The igloo seems like an continent. They walk inside for days and days, holding fast to its walls, searching on and on, for days, weeks, and months:

"Two of the men could take it no more and sat down and died. The third kept walking. He finally found the exit: his kayak was where he had left it. He returned to his village an old man, and he told the people: 'The world is just an enormous igloo.'"

Photo: Cape Prescott, Franklin Pierce Bay, by Charles White (1875)

December 17, 2008

The Gyre of Passionate Intensities

After the UN's official for Human Rights in the Palestinian territories was denied access to Gaza by Israel, the New York Times described Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton, this way:

He has compared Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to Nazi atrocities and has called for more serious examination of the conspiracy theories surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks. Pointing to discrepancies between the official version of events and other versions, he recently wrote that “only willful ignorance can maintain that the 9/11 narrative should be treated as a closed book.”
In his capacity as a United Nations investigator, Mr. Falk issued a statement this month describing Israel’s embargo on Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, as a crime against humanity, while making only cursory reference to Hamas’s rocket attacks against Israeli civilian centers. Israeli officials expressed outrage.

In other words, Falk is not an "honest broker." The comment alleging support for 9/11 conspiracy theories is, of course, crude demagogy and reflects nothing of Falk's real questions about the implications for reductionist thoughts of 9/11, which are outlined in his book, The Declining World Order: America's Imperial Geopolitics (Routledge, 2004).

The first line above mobilizes without reference one of Israel's chief criticisms, which is that Falk "draws shameful comparisons to the Holocaust." Such policing of the Holocaust comparisons is nothing new. As a metaphor it is repeatedly called upon to advance Israel's national needs, and as a historical lesson it can easily be used to characterize the Palestinian/Arab threat, which as public figures like Bernard Henri-Levy still insist on asserting, contain the DNA of intractable Nazi sympathies. If 1967, the threat of annihilation was felt more directly, and so when there was talk of a coming Auschwitz, the public was fueled by deep-seated fears, a need for vengeful protection, and an identity-affirming aggression. "Never again" was not a mere phrase then, but an orienting principle that sustained the new state. It is so common a gesture now, however, that its rhetorical impact may be nothing at all.

Except, however, when it is brought forth by outsiders trying to describe the plight of Palestinians. Alain Finkielkraut has written of the comparative phenomenon in France, where domestic political positioning too often relied on the specious assertions -- and crude formulations -- which marked Israel as Nazi-esque and Palestinians an undifferentiated mass of assembled victimhood. Finkielkraut was correct in drawing out the historical obfuscation at work in that context. But there is a far different tenor in what Falk wrote in 2007:

There is little doubt that the Nazi Holocaust was as close to unconditional evil as has been revealed throughout the entire bloody history of the human species. Its massiveness, unconcealed genocidal intent, and reliance on the mentality and instruments of modernity give its enactment in the death camps of Europe a special status in our moral imagination. This special status is exhibited in the continuing presentation of its gruesome realities through film, books, and a variety of cultural artifacts more than six decades after the events in question ceased. The permanent memory of the Holocaust is also kept alive by the existence of several notable museums devoted exclusively to the depiction of the horrors that took place during the period of Nazi rule in Germany.
Against this background, it is especially painful for me, as an American Jew, to feel compelled to portray the ongoing and intensifying abuse of the Palestinian people by Israel through a reliance on such an inflammatory metaphor as 'holocaust.' The word is derived from the Greek holos (meaning 'completely') and kaustos (meaning 'burnt'), and was used in ancient Greece to refer to the complete burning of a sacrificial offering to a divinity. Because such a background implies a religious undertaking, there is some inclination in Jewish literature to prefer the Hebrew word 'Shoah' that can be translated roughly as 'calamity,' and was the name given to the 1985 epic nine-hour narration of the Nazi experience by the French filmmaker, Claude Lanzmann. The Germans themselves were more antiseptic in their designation, officially naming their undertaking as the 'Final Solution of the Jewish Question.' The label is, of course, inaccurate as a variety of non-Jewish identities were also targets of this genocidal assault, including the Roma and Sinti ('gypsies'), Jehovah Witnesses, gays, disabled persons, political opponents.
Is it an irresponsible overstatement to associate the treatment of Palestinians with this criminalized Nazi record of collective atrocity? I think not. The recent developments in Gaza are especially disturbing because they express so vividly a deliberate intention on the part of Israel and its allies to subject an entire human community to life-endangering conditions of utmost cruelty. The suggestion that this pattern of conduct is a holocaust-in-the-making represents a rather desperate appeal to the governments of the world and to international public opinion to act urgently to prevent these current genocidal tendencies from culminating in a collective tragedy. If ever the ethos of 'a responsibility to protect,' recently adopted by the UN Security Council as the basis of 'humanitarian intervention' is applicable, it would be to act now to start protecting the people of Gaza from further pain and suffering. But it would be unrealistic to expect the UN to do anything in the face of this crisis, given the pattern of US support for Israel and taking into account the extent to which European governments have lent their weight to recent illicit efforts to crush Hamas as a Palestinian political force.

His title, "Slouching Toward A Palestinian Holocaust," and opening paragraphs acknowledge the poetic groping for an arresting image in a time of desperate need. His grim conclusion is that Israel's effective control of borders and air, its manipulative and fluctuating blockades of international aid, and its policy of air-strike assassination have entrenched a reality of collective punishment that cannot be dislodged; it will go on and on, unabated by humanitarian impulses from without or within, the catastrophe scripted and certain. Still, he cites the Fatah v. Hamas proxy war in the territories, the hands-off posture of neighboring Arab countries, and the legacy of UN impotence and irrelevance, all in an effort to untangle the complex dynamics in which the Palestinians are trapped.

Any honest discussion of Falk, the UN, Israel, the Middle East's slow war, the prospects for a solution that would do less damage than the current state of affairs, and the place of fundamental human rights for those living encamped in Gaza will have to deal with the real assertions and real measures, and then talk about the path toward a responsible apprehension of real possibilities and likely outcomes. Instead, the New York Times demonstrates the wide-spread pattern of such cruel incapacity.

December 4, 2008

Reef upon reef

Your mother's soul hovers ahead.
Your mother's soul helps sail around night, reef upon reef.
Your mother's soul lashes the sharks on before you.

This word is your mother's ward.
Your mother's ward share your bed, stone upon stone.
Your mother's ward stoops for the crumb of light.

--Paul Celan, "Der Reisekamerad [The Travel Companion]"

November 30, 2008

The Eye Seeking Safety, the Mind a Veil

The province of the poem is the world.
When the sun rises, it rises in the poem
and when it sets darkness comes down and the poem is dark .

and lamps are lit, cats prowl and men
read, read--or mumble and stare
at that which their small lights distinguish
or obscure or their hands search out

in the dark. The poem moves them or
it does not move them. Faitoute, his ears
ringing . no sound . no great city,
as he seems to read--

a roar of books
from the waddled library oppresses him
his mind begins to drift .
Beautiful thing:

--a dark flame
a wind, a flood--counter to all staleness.

Dead men's dreams, confined by these walls, risen,
seek an outlet. The spirit languishes,
unable, unable not from lack of innate ability--

(barring alone sure death)

but from that which immures them pressed here
together with their fellows, for respite .

Flown in from before the cold or nightbound
(the light attracted them)
they sought safety (in books)
but ended battering against glass
at the high windows

The Library is desolation, it has a smell of its own
of stagnation and death .

Beautiful Thing!

--the cost of dreams.
in which we search, after a surgery
of the wits and must translate, quickly
step by step or be destroyed--under a spell
to remain castrate (a slowly descending veil
closing about the mind
cutting the mind away) .


--William Carlos Williams, "The Library" (1949) from Paterson

November 9, 2008



Mother used to listen to the B.B.C. news
transistor awry on scattered bed clothes,
on in the morning when we came in
to see if she was still alive. Now
I am glued to the World Service at 3 AM,
two Irish nationalists, this is what we like.


I saw the sun dance, the Virgin Mary
came by, she was cool Buddha eyes,
I poured a drink. Catholic. Necking started:
love and sex both thoroughbreds
galloped past the post. Which lost,
which won? Lost sex sweet sex.


(Tender romanticism is our Vietnam.)
The friend of your friend
is a drag queen is you buddy
in the coffin. The neon
has come on, it's time for coffee.


In my mother's womb I sipped
the potion of nationalism and words.
Her boyfriend in her mind Yeats
gave me rhythms. Joyce sent language,
Ginsburg bestowed liberation.
In Hodges Figgis the City Lights books,
I was devoured by Howl. I began
hyperventilating. Bars of Dublin
turned into jammed paradises
with wandering disheveled starlets.

James Liddy, Dublin, San Francisco, Milwaukee, 1934-2008.

November 6, 2008

"To cease fleeing from reality and to change it"

The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.

South Carolina representative James Clyburn, a veteran of the violent times, called the results a non-violent revolution, and the victory gathering at Grant Park -- orchestrated, protected by the police, an amassing -- seemed to expel, with the shouting happy presence of 250,000 people, the ghosts of the Democratic Convention of 1968.

The revolution may not be political in an immediately recognizable sense, since it is still not clear that there is any agreement, even among those gathered in Grant Park, where the actual problems are and what their solutions demand. And if not agreement, perhaps not even any meaningful recognition. Leafing through a collection of writing, this scrap of an essay written more than ten years ago jumped out, offering the uncomfortable reminder of the stakes that remain in many ways far from the election of a president, in the struggles of labor and poverty and survival.

Talking about the perils of the community-based organizations that operate among the vulnerable for very limited ends -- neglecting or ignoring the imperatives of any larger, binding civic discourse and actual political negotiation, thereby exchanging the hope for "change" for coercive power in a sphere of influence -- Adolph Reed wrote in 1996:

In Chicago . . . we've gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program -- the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance ("The Curse of 'Community'").

The twelve years between then and now have added much to that rhetorical patina of the embattled kitchen tables where people are made to seek solutions on their own, and Reed has continued to write against the illusion that an Obama presidency will mean joyous change when the fundamental problems -- urban poverty, working strife, a vast prison complex -- will remain, and grow, and be presented as barriers to a particular kind of progress sought by liberal foundations and those invested in the development world.

Those twelve years and the migration from the community-level to the "national stage" has necessarily changed the political role of the Harvard-lawyer-become-president. He seems now to stand in for a withdrawal from the strict claims of some false "authenticity" and the diminishing effects of identity politics. In this withdrawal, and the symbolic force of his presence, actual and rhetorical--a symbolism encountered in the kitchen, on television, through the internet and airwaves--one hopes that the necessary political negotiations can again take place closer to home. We may not witness the stuff of true agonism at the presidential level, let alone a language of an analysis that exposes, in a materialist sense, the constructions of our condition. But given that so many are feeling cast out, compelled into a collective exodus through the wilderness of war and the wider threats of economic havoc, there is also the potential for some new recognitions to also take root on a larger scale; if hope, hope brought through mass pain.

The election two days ago was, after all, the culmination of a slow, cascading, majority rejection of the hateful, the fearful, and the insidious traps of a long history. The votes were cast when there is much to fear. Many refused it even as it still continues to play out across the dim, angry faces that were holding tight to the reactionary non-sense. It remains, brutal and brutish and selfish and naive, but it also seems more isolated than ever before, a shrinking island of death.

In 1962, James Baldwin wrote, on the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of emancipation, a letter to his nephew, in which he said that this history had bound white America in a terror that it could not understand. He tells his nephew not to retreat from the rooted sense of belonging to Harlem, to America, to possibility, even as "the details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you." The reconciliation of those two truths was to be found, says Baldwin, in "the words acceptance and integration."
You, don't be afraid. I said that I that it was intended that you should perish in the ghetto, perish by never having being allowed to spell your proper name. You have, and many of us have, defeated this intention; and, by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. But those men are your brothers--your lost, younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, that is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease feeling from reality and to change it. For this is your home . . . do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become ("My Dungeon Shook," The Fire Next Time).

November 2, 2008


The chapel far off, in the rain.

October 28, 2008

At Night with a Lowered Book

Born as an idea in Milwaukee, the Edmund Fitzgerald has become a mythic ship, a historic wreck. Once the largest freighter on the great lakes, having gone down in a November storm on Lake Superior, it has become an icon of darkness. A Cleveland brewery has named its cold black porter after it.

Home after the long day, home to two bottles of it to take away the weight of what was, and then whiskey after. Midnight comes and the news fades, and everything slows into quiet. Something about the image of the ship on the bottle, and knowing its fate, reminds me of Brecht. Something about dark times and bad trouble, against which the small gestures of pleasure, the thinking through the wreckage without ever becoming mere spectator:

Years ago when I was studying the ways of the Chicago Wheat Exchange
I suddenly grasped how they managed the whole world's wheat there
And yet I did not grasp it either and lowered the book
I knew at once: you've run
Into bad trouble.

There was no feeling of enmity in me and it was not the injustice
Frightened me, only the thought that
Their way of going about it won't do
Filled me completely.

These people, I saw, lived by the harm
Which they did, not by the good.
This was a situation, I saw, that could only be maintained
By crime because too bad for most people.
In this way every
Achievement of reason, invention or discovery
Must lead only to still greater wretchedness.

Such and suchlike I thought at the moment
Far from anger or lamenting, as I lowered the book
With its description of the Chicago wheat market and exchange.

Much trouble and tribulation
Awaited me.

October 25, 2008

A Wreck on the Shore

Spectatorship. To watch the world's passing calamities, vast and public, or small and domestic, and take their measure. Are they, from that point of sanctuary and safety, seen as essential destructions, unavoidable eruptions, essential sacrifices? Made for the sake of an unfolding future, or what Hegel calls the "true result of history"?

Or is the saving quality actual distance, which is described by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where the European man, over his breakfast, reads in the newspaper of a Chinese village swallowed by an earthquake and  feels pangs of pity, a true tremor of sadness; then meditates on life's fragility or geological risks, only to continue soon enough on with business, pleasure, life? Or does even the witness of some proximate disaster bring the selfish relief of the survivor?

In the tragic mode, that which is unjust and deplorable is worked over and eventually harnessed by reason, which may well allow for the great gift of pity for the unfortunate, but not the sustained fear and trembling at human vulnerability.

The spectator keen to see the drama of history on the stage, avoids the brutality of the waves of passionate dislocation, and instead rests on "the calmer shore and, from a secure position . . . look[s] on at the distant spectacle of confusion and wreckage." One must, as a living being, a brute with an "eye of prey," become a spectator to suffering, including one's own; give it cause, plot, parameters, justification, reason. But be it by rising tides, geological upheavals, or the scandals on the stage that seem mere drama, something other, the figurative shipwreck is almost always a destiny in one form or another, a point of contact with what cannot be escaped through political cant, self-satisfying judgment, or the vast refusals of ill-purpose.

Photograph: "The Wreck of the Viscata," San Francisco Bay, by Carleton Watkins.

October 16, 2008

"A thousand sources of sudden enrichment"

In this time of anxious need, the call goes out. The order is placed, the machinery is fired up and the new printings of standard editions are readied for sale and re-sale. The product, this time, is Marx's Das Kapital. Perhaps it is produced offshore, waiting to be brought back "home" to be distributed with magnificent speed and displayed in bookstore windows for buyers desperate for a way of understanding what is not being adequately explored.

However it comes to be, and come to be owned, it is in many more hands today, talismanic in its thin binding, promising the promise of answers and explanations; a way of knowing what is so frightful.

What trickle of pleasure will a weary train traveler feel when, at the end of a tiring day, the eye impatient with Marx's grueling care and seemingly infinite patience, finds a footnote citing Luther, who writes, "Whoever eats up, robs, steals the nourishment of another, that man commits as great a murder (so far as in him lies) as he who starves a man or utterly undoes him. Such does a usurer, and sits while safe on his tool, when he ought to rather be hanging on the gallows, and be eaten by as many ravens could stick their beaks in and share it. Meanwhile, we hang the small thieves . . . "?

What memory of the Hugo Boss suits and well-shined shoes seen that day will creep in when he finds that Marx writes, "The progress of capitalist production not only creates a world of delights; it lays open, in speculation and the credit system, a thousand sources of sudden enrichment. When a certain stage of development has been reached, a conventional degree of prodigality, which is also the exhibition of wealth, and consequently a source of credit, becomes a business necessity. . . " ? Or, "Public credit becomes the credo of capital. And with the rise of national debt-making, want of faith in the national debt takes the place of the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, which may not be forgiven"?

But just as Benjamin refused an easy reduction of the Paris arcades, those enclosed "worlds of delight," the grasping for answers that come too quick are to be refused. The formulations that might allow one, raven-like, to stick their beak in and pluck out a pronouncing judgment, will always give only false pleasure. They are only avoidance of the shock that rattles the body. The temptation is to look for small symptoms in the normalcy, and seeing both at once, find assurance. If so many continue to take the train to work, to walk the same path, day after day, no matter what the newspapers say, then surely it is a matter of just waiting for whatever it is we claim to know is happening, to have happened; like a hurricane that eventually turns to mere rain over land.

A few years back, Alan Greenspan rejected the very idea that there was a brewing crisis because of the play of credit, which metastasized in housing. He referred, then, to the not very uncommon phenomenon of "irrational exuberance." In other words, to a very simple condition. No cause for alarm. This is as helpful as saying that markets run on fear and greed. And it recalls a fragment from Horkheimer's Dawn and Decline:

As one walks through an insane asylum, the horrible impression the sight of the raving mad makes on the layman is allayed by the matter-of-fact statement of the physician that the patient is in a state of excitation. Being subsumed under a specific scientific category, the terror at the phenomenon is presented as somehow out of place. "It's just a state of excitation." There are people who will not be disturbed about the existence of evil because they have a theory that accounts for it. Here I am also thinking of Marxists who, in the face of wretchedness, quickly proceed to show why it exists. Even comprehension can be too quick.

October 9, 2008

Roots of a Crisis

From an apple orchard in a beautiful shallow valley and out of the autumn woods of the Dunes Highway that runs along the shore of Lake Michigan and into and through Gary, Indiana.

The rain is steady, the last light of the gray fades quickly into a wet smear of dark colors. The industrial markers are enormous. Train yards, British Petroleum tanks, a harbor canal, the proliferating rusted-metal land of docks. Old buildings on wide streets for trucks are close to the road, bare and lit by street-light. For longer stretches of the two-lane highway, however, there are few signs of people among the homes that sit dark in the side streets.

The only commercial glow is from the scattered liquor stores. Cash checking outlets, not banks. Occasionally a billboard.

Then night, past more and more of the areas marked by boarded-up homes. Some have the look of being lived in, but are paradoxically, and glaringly, unlit, as if the electricity was inconsistent, shut off, or long dead. Block after block of blackness and cold and wet. One after another, the shells of shelter. And in the rain the feeling of something dire that has penetrated every space where the living take shelter, that the city space is being re-forested vine by vine, cracking wood and overwhelming the old asphalt.

There is a presidential debate scheduled for later that evening. The subject is the economy. The working and middle classes are both starting to realize the long term effects of the long established neo-liberal epoch. They are fearing for their employment futures, their wages, and very idea of pension prospects in the face of the great unwinding following the speculative excesses of the rightfully named naughts; fears of an epic recession, another depression. The debate will say nothing to these regions that are spread around the Great Lakes like natural deserts.

They exude the feeling of numbness, immune from political prospects because they cannot be touched by the necessary fear. Stripped of their ties to the collective, it is as if these spaces lack the luxury of a populist nerve. With the welfare state made threadbare, what is there left to lose in these realms that are pockets abandoned to nature, the drama played out beyond tragedy and into the baseless, unacknowledged ruin?

Photo of Gary by Lee Bay.

October 6, 2008

The Legislation of Catastrophe

And the most terrible, the most horrible catastrophes imaginable, the conflagration of the universe, can it be anything more than the crackling, the burst, and the evaporation of a grain of powder on a candle?
--Joseph Joubert, 1821

In the long wake of the French Revolution, particularly between 1815 and 1850, liberal politics waged war on threats to social order. Trying to bolster the prospects of liberty in the time of the excessive, ruinous promise of revolution, liberal politics tested again and again the dream of a justice fit for the feared worst. As the grounds forming and supporting the law shifted with the seismic force of violent antagonisms, however, there was a dramatic collision of fears.

For some, the events of the half-century demonstrated the absolute vulnerability of the individual exposed to the riotous calamities of revolution; annihilating social forces quite capable of extinguishing all individual liberties, devastating personhood itself.

For others, the notion that those so vulnerable might be offered legal assistance, and thereby given a voice in the systems of the civic arena, threatened the notion of the law itself. It was as if the impulse to the protect the poor came as the sound of a dam cracking, the wall between order and catastrophe splintering case by case, until the whole social order dissolved under the raging waters of an infinite clamor for justice.

This old negotiation with catastrophe comes to mind when one thinks of the thickly paged bill passed this week to (supposedly, possibly) tend to the financial "crisis" before it becomes a catastrophe. As before, the threat cannot be measured. As before, the measures have no way to dim the threats. This time, the mathematical sublime is not just a philosophical formula, but an apt rendition of the inability of anyone to ever know the risks that are supposed to be contained. Even for those for whom "one trillion" is a real number, there is noone who can know the true amount of credit default swaps that have infested the system of capital. If there is a specter in that machine it is a communal failure of the law, of contracted promises -- a curdled moment in the dream of the risk manager's equation.

And when those promises are broken? When the magical thinking ends? Will we sense at all the tiny flick at the end of the candle, somewhere? Or only feel the loss of some distant light that went out long ago, like some star?

We have now learned that these intertwining bets against and for disaster have come to cast a net over everything were, not surprising, the result of a law. An eleventh hour budget passed on December 15th, 2000 contained legislation that removed the prospect of regulation; it ensured our collective exposure to the blind and hysterical risk games, and that such risk would continue unchecked until now, when it is far too late to address and correct.

Slavoj Zizek is fond of saying that given the state of capital, now is a time above all for thinking, for theory, for finding the true measure of our situation. "What is to be done?" requires knowing with what, as well as what is at stake. He is not so confident that this can be done, however, for we are so often lacking a language, a calculus that can ground a critique. One waits for the language to come, one dreads the catastrophe, one recoils from the abuses written in by the law itself.

September 26, 2008

"Death of an Heir of Sorrows"

So many of the characters he portrayed had a restless want made of bitterness and need. There was the steady beat of an alertness to the century in them, a familiar, fierce ache of protest in the middle of some tangible decay or mood of enclosure. All hustlers, thieves, prisoners, and wounded players. The want faced with the death of some necessary fiction, some beckoning image (as if undoing his own power in the light) proving too weak, too fragile, too pathetic. And so the themes of escaping the binding lure of the American dream, or the binds that made it impossible.

They push back against constant presence of ideologies, the forces that shape what is being represented, as if in his eyes he could demonstrate that the battles were always more than those against actual opposition. The torturers of the prison may embody an evil, but it is already the chain gang, a small institution of delusion, that is the culprit.

Even that figure who was supposed to represent the worst of the new breed was given a line that knowingly nodded to the dark times that come. And so while embodying the evil himself he is able to remind the audience that the blame is beyond him, that it rightly goes beyond any single man's moral character, or barbed-wire heart, all the way to the very stuff of the system at work.

And so the son Hud says to father Homer, who takes the government ordered slaughter of his cattle with a wounded grace, and touch of tragic acceptance:

"This country is run on epidemics, where you been? Price fixing, crooked TV shows, inflated expense accounts. How many honest men you know? Why you separate the saints from the sinners, you're lucky to wind up with Abraham Lincoln. Now I want out of this spread what I put into it, and I say let us dip our bread into some of that gravy while it is still hot."
That performance as Hud may seem notable for its refusal to turn away from the destructive qualities that force a man to devour the gravy regardless of the moral measures that might come before, but more than that, it stands for what drives the compulsion of the rest of the characters, the immeasurable losses that cascade across the screen, decade after decade, insistence after insistence, betrayal after betrayal, cowardly act after cowardly act, refusal after refusal, sorrow after sorrow, in some form or another.

"Death of an Heir of Sorrows," by the Silver Jews. (Courtesy of Ted Barron).

September 25, 2008

In the City of Expectation

I had arrived ... to visit a woman friend. Her house, the city, the language were unfamiliar to me. Nobody was expecting me; no one knew me. For two hours I walked the streets in solitude.

Never again have I seen them so. From every gate a flame darted; each cornerstone sprayed sparks, and every streetcar came toward me like a fire engine. For she might have stepped out of the gateway, around the corner, been sitting in the streetcar. But of the two of us, I had to be, at any price, the first to see the other. For had she touched me with the match of her eyes, I would have gone up like a powder keg.

--Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street

September 20, 2008

In the City of Memory

Dating from the first century BC, the Rhetorica ad Herennium outlines the interconnection of rhetoric and memory. It presents a system for organizing the materials of memory. An orator stores and arranges his knowledge and learning for recall and access, quickly locating within the mental storehouse the necessary fact, fable, or quotation. It describes the need for structures and scenes to ground and secure what is known. With these structures in place, images to be recalled can be placed, just as writing is impressed upon a wax tablet. The scenes and structures make a cosmos in which to wander mentally, street to street, house to house, room to room.

Moreover, each of these loci acts as a theater that disappears under the pull of the drama it nonetheless supports. And contrary to expectations, the drama is defined by images, not words. A thinker such as Walter Ong insists that the written word -- from the Greeks onward -- announces the technology that births philosophy itself. With the abstracted quality of words written down, steadied and made to represent ideas removed from a living present, the perpetual becoming of speaking in oral culture gives way to literate culture's questions of a transcendent abstraction: Being. The word, always at a distance from the particularity of any speaker, is used to form knowledge within; it is absorbed in solitude, made something by the introspective musings. Hence, writing as a technology that structures thought.

The Rhetorica ad Herennium, however, stresses that memory and knowing relies upon remembered images and not studied and steadied words. The images are only like writing. What we see is the "material" presence of recollection, and attached to these, like a comet's tail of reflection, are the words. They appear within the mind only through the associated images of remembrance. In the theater, the visual presence of the actors gives voice to the script, enlivening the words, undeniably, ontologically there, to be seen.

In a famous Russian case study (cited by Mary Carruthers in The Book of Memory), a mnemonist, or performing memory-artist, described his system of memory as a conscious translation of word into picture. Each word becomes a thing in his mind, and each thing is carefully placed in his mental metropolis. Luria, author of the study, writes: "beginning at Mayakovsky Square, [he would] slowly make his way down, distributing his images at houses, gates, stores windows. At times, without realizing how it had happened, he would suddenly find himself back in his home town . . . where he would wind up his trip in the house he had lived in as a child." To call forth a passage he makes his way through imagined streets, looking up at buildings that hold the signs he can recognize and then re-translate back to words.

The imagined loci, and the imagined images, if not properly set could sometimes obscure their purpose. Thus clues were not properly seen, like when the nuances of a drama slip by due to inattention. The mnemonist describes losing images in the background. He makes a pencil too small in the scene, a white egg is placed against a white door. As a corrective he makes the settings less natural, distorting scale, playing with increased contrast, ensuring the elements do not blend too much together.

The weakness of his method were two-fold. One, noise and the speed of his initial perceptions could crowd his placements, intruding upon the necessity of space and time. He needed room: to hear sharp, uncluttered sounds and to imagine buildings and homes defined by alleyways and buffers. Each scene needed its break, the black buffer of a nowhere to accentuate the sharp, distinctive placement of image into scene.

Returning to the idea of theater, his method of placement and recall might best be thought of as Brechtian -- it uses scene and setting and image for another purpose of thought, and built into the system is the room to consider, to gain footing, to know where one is. The spectacular pace of a Mueller piece would, by contrast, would distort and disturb the harmony necessary for orderly recollection. (Mueller may have been Socratic in disposition, ready with innumerable anecdotes and recollected details that could emerge in dialogue, but his works seem intent on crowding out any efficient forms of remembrance. One must hurry through the uses of other texts, like someone taking flight from the police and trying to sightsee along the way.)

The second weakness is therefore connected to the first. How was it the mnemonist was to purge his city of memories he no longer needed? Trained to collect, arrange, and recall, he could not simply shake lose the images and the words attached to them. He tried writing down the words, to externalize them, purge them. No use. He tried to select them from their scene and imagine himself burning them. His solution to the pale Funesian plight was much simpler than he had initially anticipated. He needed only to will them gone. Through an active disregard, he created the necessary space to repopulate his city of memory.

Photos: Shimon Attie, "Between Dreams"; detail of 1511 Venice edition of The Rhetorica; Steven Foster, from his repetition series.

September 19, 2008

One Aftermath

Kathryn Cook's "Memory Denied," product of an Aftermath Project grant for photo-essays of lives in the remnants of war and violence and genocide:

An Armenian mother who escaped, a son who inherited, through a birth in Syria, the displacement, as well as the memories that the mother passed on, but which fade, slip, concretize into talismans of identity.

September 11, 2008

This Mourning

This morning, many will surely go about their day, casting backward glances toward New York in 2001, or with even more historical reckoning, to Chile of 1973, and Allende's overthrow. For a select few, the families who suffered and the individuals whose friends were killed will mourn with more intensity, surely, because of the calendar's turn and the trick of waiting for the day when the release is framed and held open for public remembrance. Will they read the names again this year at ground zero, tolling the bell, and is it left to those individuals alone to wait and listen and hear, in the sound of public address, the enunciation of their loss?

For another set of the self-selected, this is a day of melancholic identification; the day they can again kill off the quivering intelligence of ambivalence, claim the righteous mantle of the most-wounded and still undaunted, insist on the project of eternal ruin and absolute rebuilding, and project always the purest motives of their mad defense. Where does this come from? What motivates the entrenchment? As Wendy Brown thinks through the political manifestation of this, she finds the reflex that inevitably follows the seduction: "Idealizing the lost object as it was never idealized when alive. Straightforward, perhaps, but not simple, for this affect also involves remorse for a past of not loving the object well enough and self-reproach for ever having wished for its death or replacement."

As Brown works through the so-called politics this creates, she pricks the aggressiveness engendered. There is, she says, in the fortressed posture that arises, the gnawing guilt of having been so seduced. Thus the response is to fall in turn for the foul temptation to defend the idealization, and one's right to idealize, "tout court." One idealizes themselves into a crypt, an inescapable hold of the past and a sensibility as a alive and alert as concrete. This is, as Auden wrote in a poem he would later reject for its own assuredness,

The habit-forming pain
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

September 5, 2008

Beyond Gaza

On the same day the Israeli group, Rabbis for Human Rights, sadly marked their twentieth year in operation -- admitting their task as greater and more impossible than ever -- the two ships operated by The Free Gaza Movement returned to Cyprus. Israel did not stop them on their way to Gaza, nor intercept them on their way back to Cyprus. The rationale for the blockade remains "security" and since Free Gaza brought only balloons and hearing aids (perfect props for antagonistic quips about the "hot air" of activists" and the "deafening silence" that for the most part surrounded the event) Israel allowed them to arrive and leave unhindered.

With their ships back in Cyprus, The Free Gaza Movement encourages more ships to sail. What will the next ones bring, both in terms of critical attention to the plight of Gazans and in actual cargo? Israel says it will decide how to handle each ship seeking to dock in Gaza on a case-by-case basis. The standard for intervention is the judgment that the material being brought in constitutes a threat, and that anyone being taken out constitutes an enemy. At what would actual humanitarian aid constitute a threat to the policy of collective punishment? How many sick and dying would be deemed propaganda material? If Israel sees clear to block Fulbright scholars from leaving Gaza to attend U.S. universities, the absurdist calculations of control are bound to unfurl, the blood trickle of 1.3 million people caught in the grip of Erez and Rafah.

Human rights work, therefore, is not defined by the blockade to be run, but in the small acts of pushing against the death-logic of denials, divisions, and distinctions that mark the vulnerable for death. Furthermore, in the end, such work does not meets its enemy in the unjust policy and practice to shout at.

Instead, it seems to work as the spectral haunting of something to come, emerging in injustice's exhaustion, the point at which the strangle-hold -- the bondage to security -- becomes the impossibility of holding fast to the threat.

Last week also marked the death of Abie Nathan, a leftist and twice-jailed Israeli whose work for the defeat of insane boundaries found its perfect symbols in his acts of flight and his pirate radio ship, which broadcast calls for peace and pop music floated into Israel for 21 years. He mistakenly shut it down after the Oslo Accords provided its false promises, but the very idea remains: the floating, ungrounded insistence; the waiting just beyond the horizon of the law; something insistent, always there awaiting a chance to be tapped.

August 12, 2008

Exodus reprise

One of the signature moments in the Zionist project between the end of the Second World War and the founding of Israel was the summer of 1947 Exodus affair. When a ship (the Exodus 1947) of Displaced Persons gathered from camps in postwar Europe was set on a course for Palestine, the goal was not the delivery of persons in need of land, sanctuary, a home, and a life. It was instead a sacrificial exercise designed to run aground on the British blockade at work to limit immigration. It was undertaken as performance of victimization - using real victims - to garner support through the shaming of the British and the blockade. Antagonizing the blockade, having the persons turned away and sent back to France, back to Germany would succeed in delivering the Holocaust unto Jewish Palestine in symbol only.

Now human rights activists are setting sail from Cyprus, on their way to the Gaza strip, which remains isolated under an Israeli blockade and the delicate truce between Hamas and Israel. These activists are using two sail boats. Their gesture is one of quiet passage, of a tiny, collective assemblage intent on opening Gaza to the world once again.

Unlike the events of 1947 there can be no expectation of martyrdom or sacrifice, simply the opening of a passage. There is something of the gesture's smallness, then, that strikes a chord in opposition to the history that has been written in those waters. But it will not, for all that, escape the cameras or slip silently into oblivion. It is easy to anticipate the images that will come out, the press conferences to follow, the public display of concern for those dwelling in Gaza. Will the gestures, however pronounced, be noticed at all? Or will they be like some song sung into the night wind along a far-off quay, a plaintive plea for some bodily peace that has all the worldly force of silent prayer?

July 30, 2008

Expectation, Escape, and Equivalence

The temptations of a Moitessier, the sailor who refused completion of "the course," who took the race for a finish and turned it into a celebration of process; who steered away from the pre-determined destination that would be crowded with an expectant public ready to devour, and measure, and mark his experience like their very own Lindbergh. Moitessier abandoned all that, and much more, and chose instead his own way through the "oblivion" of the ocean and globe. That was 1968. No wonder the tiny street-theater "revolutions" by the students in some cities, no wonder the race-raging violence in others, when the choices seemed so murderously and stupidly dull and deadly on the (one) land, so fantastic, so absurd, so ego-driven on those alternate waters. Few can set sail, become Ishmael still aloft atop the mast of the devoured ship.

A century before, a French worker named Claude Genoux crossed the Atlantic. He left Marseilles and found the world. Not the romantic dream of oblivion, but the hard lines of global trade; the earth's matrix of markets and possibilities. Genoux sees enough, sees poetically enough, to know that there is no escape from the markets and no dimming of the dream of flight. The wander is all, and all is equivalent within it. As Jacques Ranciere describes his odyssey in Short Voyages:

"What he found was the boredom, the suffering and joy, the labour without poetry and the pleasures without refinement that the happenstance and wanderings of proletarian existences always come back to and always seek to escape. At the end of these adventures marked by equivalences -- a law of poetry, tourism, and commodities -- he has recognized the foundation of the universal equivalence: enclosure within the circle of the brutal efforts and pleasures of voiceless labour. A proletarian's hell that he seeks to flee all the way to the end of the world, where he finds it again exemplified int he figure of the free sailor on the high seas and the adventurous whale hunter. . . .

If he writes, he does so to pass from one condition to another, from someone who loads the paper to someone who lays out the pages, even someone who writes them. And he will not stop writing. Just as he refused to die in a bed in the hospice for aged workmen. Forty years after his return from the South Seas, once again a bootblack by trade, he will take off for a walk in the forest of Fountainbleau. Which is where, a few days later, his body will be found."

July 26, 2008

Swept Away

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned . . .

July 6, 2008


The death, when it came, announced in a phone call, was already, as it was always going to be, far away.

It had happened the night before; likely in the deep quiet between midnight and dawn, in an apartment complex on the edge of a distant nondescript town where in the stillness of street lamps and cul-de-sacs, with maybe only the sound of the air-conditioner and the oxygen machine to be heard, she worked to stand up, and then up on her own feet, died. It was, by all signs, a catastrophic instant. A stroke. Knocked from within. One feels it, sensing it must have come like a hammer that cracks the body forward, how they found her. Maybe, though, it came as nothing more than an exhale from without. The air-conditioner hummed. All around, in the cell-like apartments, in the town, beyond, everything lived on, without a ripple of difference.

The doctors had long ago promised that the system of breath and blood would collapse. Her life would thus end. While it went on, too little oxygen, too much strain on the body, every part suffering, weakening, slowly; month upon month. An equanimity while inhabiting such failure and its torments is almost impossible to imagine, but it was there, and still there, one prays, in the instant that was less than an instant of knowing, without fear.

The loss is so multiform that it doesn't seem to be any loss at all. There is an uncanny dispersion of memory, a kaleidoscope of images and affective moments that tumble through the days now, nothing solid, nothing gripping, nothing that can make some substantial grief, like a line of Yeats, or the weight of a casket to be buried.

What is harder to figure is the loss of your existence as their child, the small thing they held, and which in the repeated stories seemed to be something contained and definite, but was also surely somewhere beyond the language and scripted anecdotes. It was instead your very presence and being that made up a reservoir of feeling that could never find form, and so was only ever reflected in their being.

* * * *

When she painted or drew, she painted or drew mostly from images at hand, from forms given -- old photographs, master works, found images. Nothing was ever sustained as a serious project, but there was a consistent ability, even with the weakening eyes and frail hands: joyous things made in response to what was already made, whether the miniature versions of Van Goghs that went into doll houses or an ink drawing from a portrait by Paul Strand. The lines could come quick as an impulse but there was above all else, an insistent precision of hard lines and exacting reproductions that became translations. This is the expression, I think, of living without prejudice, with great capacities for forgiveness and for allowing what was to be.

We never sat over a big book of Gerhard Richter and yet such a dream scene has been the sustaining way in these days after death. And it feels now imagined, like some imprinted. To think of working through the pages one by one has become the act of mourning. Surely she would have appreciated the boldness of the abstracts, the audacious colors and peeling layers. The others, though, of families, still-lives, outlaws, figures, would have resonated. She would have recognized and reveled in, though, as I imagine it now, the series upon series of shadowy realisms. In the after-effect pictures, some crisp, some blurred, the best like polaroids scraped by rough-handling or from having been left unattended in a dusty heap, she would have seen something kindred in the so-different style: the repeated gesture of refashioning what was already itself just an image. Hands and eye grasping for what it is that memory cannot hold to form, what photographs point toward but falsify, the real that runs aground the swift pursuits of wish and desire.

She would have loved the essential force of transience inscribed, what passeth show held and re-made, turned into a newness to see and behold.

June 26, 2008

Winter Memories in Blinded Summer

More than most photographs, the specter-laden images of Alexey Titarenko are made by what slips past, barely apprehended, maybe wholly unseen. Looking at some of his pictures of Russia, Cuba, Venice, one senses that the dust or snow is suspended like a patina, some gorgeous gauze of memory; a protective coating that announces proudly that things do not change. But in most there is the movement, the long look that plays with the play of the eye and mind. Those frames are filled with whispers of light, as if some of the strands detected are what await memory's work of return, the mind's ability to conjure ghosts for the sake of dialog and the others are perceptions of what will never yield to the demands to perceive. We live, breathe, and think, and are always losing so much of what passes.

It makes sense, then, these winter scenes seen out of season:

"Just as little as the eye can see at its blind spot, where the nerve enters the retina, is what has just been experienced perceived by any sense. This blind spot in the soul, this darkness of the lived moment, must nevertheless be thoroughly distinguished from the darkness of forgotten or past events. When past material is increasingly covered by night, this night can be lifted, memory helps out, sources and finds can be excavated, in fact historically past material, even if only patchily, is especially objectifiable precisely for contemplative consciousness. The darkness of the lived moment, on the other hand, stays in its sleeping-chamber. . . . Together with its content, the lived moment itself remains essentially invisible, and in fact all the more securely, the more energetically attention is directed toward it: at this root, in the lived In-itself, in punctual immediacy, all world is still dark."
--Ernst Bloch, Principle of Hope

June 17, 2008

The Weight of Smoke

Paul Auster's film Smoke opens with a parable of time, action, and memory: the writer Paul Benjamin enters a Brooklyn tobacco shop and while buying his tins of Schimmelpennicks cuts through the banter of the loitering regulars with the story of Sir Walter Raleigh's introduction of smoking to the court of Queen Elizabeth. He finishes with Raleigh's proof that he could determine the weight of smoke:

You mean, weigh smoke?

Exactly. Weigh smoke.

You can't do that. It's like weighing air.

I admit it's strange. Almost like weighing someone's soul. But Sir Walter was a clever guy. First, he took an unsmoked cigar and put it on a balance and weighed it. Then he lit up and smoked the cigar, carefully tapping the ashes into the balance pan. When he was finished, he put the butt into the pan with the ashes and weighed what was there. Then he subtracted that number from the original weight of the unsmoked cigar. The difference . . . was the weight of the smoke.

Expenditure makes the measure. Apprehension in what is absented. Like weighing someone's soul. The weight is found in the residue of accumulated effect, less the living, disappeared action; the inhale and exhale of time.

This idea of what remains is the spirit of Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, a sparse collection of word artifacts that are assembled to take the measure of the cataclysms that came in crematoria and fire bomb.

When Louis Menand tried to review the book he became fixated on the afterword, in which Baker reasons that the best actions of the period, morally, were those of pacifistic resistance. The substance of the book, however, is not in the author's afterword, but in the remnants through which Baker takes the measure of the war. The sparsity of the prose, the fragmented approach, and as Baker himself emphasizes, the strategic use of white space, constitute a crucial rhythm of reading; a re-creation of the tap-tap of the figural cigar as the war was approached, the tap-tap of Churchill's fine dining while people were starved. In other words, to speak historically, which Menand insists upon, safe-guards the righteous thought by positing only the strategies of states against the eventual, grand necessity of allied victory:

These were the imperfect states that history produced to oppose a genocidal, imperialistic totalitarianism. Why did these states resort to violence? Isn’t the obvious answer “Because appeasement had failed”?

Baker, on the other hand, offers the chance to remember that the decisions taken to use starvation as a weapon, and to annihilate civilian populations for purposes in fact detrimental to that "victory," are made in living environments of contested ideologies and the battle of possibilities. To write of "imperfect states that history produced" is to confuse levels of authorship, to deny that so much abundant life and word and attempts to resist power went up in smoke before the historian came to cut apart the cooled corpse.

June 15, 2008

June 4, 2008


From the beautiful day's making of Wood s Lot:

"A Commonplace Day" by
Thomas Hardy

The day is turning ghost,
And scuttles from the kalendar in fits and furtively,
To join the anonymous host
Of those that throng oblivion; ceding his place, maybe,
To one of like degree.

I part the fire-gnawed logs,
Rake forth the embers, spoil the busy flames, and lay the ends
Upon the shining dogs;
Further and further from the nooks the twilight's stride extends,
And beamless black impends.

Nothing of tiniest worth
Have I wrought, pondered, planned; no one thing asking blame or praise,
Since the pale corpse-like birth
Of this diurnal unit, bearing blanks in all its rays -
Dullest of dull-hued Days!

Wanly upon the panes
The rain slides as have slid since morn my colourless thoughts; and yet
Here, while Day's presence wanes,
And over him the sepulchre-lid is slowly lowered and set,
He wakens my regret.

Regret--though nothing dear
That I wot of, was toward in the wide world at his prime,
Or bloomed elsewhere than here,
To die with his decease, and leave a memory sweet, sublime,
Or mark him out in Time . . .

--Yet, maybe, in some soul,
In some spot undiscerned on sea or land, some impulse rose,
Or some intent upstole
Of that enkindling ardency from whose maturer glows
The world's amendment flows;

But which, benumbed at birth
By momentary chance or wile, has missed its hope to be
Embodied on the earth;
And undervoicings of this loss to man's futurity
May wake regret in me.

June 2, 2008

There, in the waning light

Encountering a particular space that once held the greatest intimacies and the most undefined forces: the landscape where one grew up; a landscape, in this case, where the landscape meant livelihoods and seasonal shifts and crop changes; where the openness meant encounters that were almost always mediated by the car and driving; where the sensibilities were unknowingly taking shape.

This time the car is a rental. It is appropriate. This return is as tourist. It is not just that the land belongs to others. It is that the landscape as possession has passed, so that passing through brings the concentrated hour, or two, of borrowing; taking up the land's light and shapes for the sake of remembering palely the old sense of connection, the time when the turns in the country roads were taken with unthinking reflex and intuitive ease, when habit made true memory unnecessary. And this work of memory that dictates the navigations -- around the old town plaza, to the house that ancestors built just after the Bear Flag revolt, along certain backroads that once led to the houses of girlfriends -- also makes the present details all the more present. For while in this kind of transit, a return and something absolutely present and new, those details are filled with the clarity that comes from stripping away habits of non-seeing, of not having to hunger and hold to that which remains, dying there, in the waning light.

"The identification of immediate with past experience, the recurrence of past action or reaction in the present, amounts to a participation between ideal and the real, imagination and direct apprehension, symbol and substance. Such participation frees the essential reality that is denied to the contemplative as to the active life. What is common to present and past is more is more essential than either taken separately."
--Samuel Beckett, Proust

May 20, 2008

The intensity which I wanted

(Painting by Felix Nussbaum).

I had been bothered by a secret weariness
with meter and regular stanzas
grown a little stale. The smooth lines and rhymes
seemed to me affected, a false stress on words and syllables--
fake flowers
in the streets in which I walked.
And yet I found prose
without the burst of song and sudden dancing--
without the intensity which I wanted.
The brand-new verse some Americans were beginning to write--
after the French "free verse," perhaps,
or the irregular rhythms of Walt Whitman,
the English translations of the Hebrew Bible
and, earlier yet, teh rough verse of the Anglo-Saxons--
seemed to me, when I first read it,
not cut to patterns, however cleverly,
nor poured into ready molds,
but words and phrases flowing as the thought;
to be read just as common speech
but for the stopping at the turn of each line--and
and this like a rest in music or a turn in the dance.
(I found it no criticism that to read such verse as prose
was to have a kind of prose,
for that was not to read it as was written.)
--Charles Reznikoff, "Early History of a Writer"

May 17, 2008

Denying al-nakba

The marking of Israel's sixtieth year has also brought the circulation of its shadow, the Palestinian remembrance of al-nakba, or the catastrophe of massive displacement that followed the 1948 war.

Beersheba 1948:

Post-independence Beersheba,
with Leonard Bernstein, November 1948:

Not surprisingly, there is the continued insistence that their independence not be woven tight to the price Palestinians paid then, and pay now. Israel is currently trying to pressure the United Nations to avoid using nakba. This attempt to influence the common "lexicon" is nothing other than trying to banish the very idea of a historical view of the Palestinian plight from general thought. It is indicative of the worst contradictions that saturate the problems in Palestine. Israel's Foreign Minister Livni suggested that the path for a Palestinian today is paved by forgetting yesterday -- saying they will have their own independence day when the word nakba falls from their vocabulary. But Defense Minister Barak reminded every Israeli that "there is no future for a nation that does not know its past." Israel cannot shape the vision of the past from sheer rhetorical gamesmanship. There is too much already written into the land, like the script their security fence and West Bank bypass roads, and the more obscure traces in the shape of deeds for homes lost or the diaried memories of refugees.

That such history might disappear is the revolutionary dream. That the myths of a clean creation must be so obscenely protected is the impulse of weak nationalism. Of course, the past remains, and it seems increasingly present beyond the limited use of emigrants, exiles, and refugees, people who are not so absent as to have their past erased and scattered, but living reminders. The "right of return" for them may be framed in moral terms, as a just insistence, but that is a political matter. It is an object in a struggle for recognition since it, as a right, must be recognized. Without being part of an agreement it has as much substance as the claim that other should not remember their losses, that should agree to displacement. For that decision to forget would also be a political choice and not a human one.

Human catastrophes, however, are not so easily negotiated, and so one begins with recognition that not only are such memories powerful, but that they belong to all of Palestine, whatever its future formations. In other words:
"No national 'right,' as in organic and pre-given. No self-determination, as in self-sufficiency, of nations. To [this] we can add . . . no singular selfhood. Rights . . . relies on a fully rational, monochrome, conception of the person. I must know who I am when I claim them. But if the mind is not its own place? If my claim delves into the depths of my own history, trawling through my dreams and nightmare, to create its own law? The image we have of displaced persons tends to be cast in terms of endurance, survival, the fierce adherence of all human creatures to their own life. It bears no investigation of inner worlds. I suggest instead we see peoples on the move at least partly as sleepwalkers, trundling through each other's dark night."
--Jacqueline Rose, "Displacement in Zion," The Last Resistance