February 27, 2009

From a Daybook Scrap

"There is not a 'cure' for us, reversal of some wrong or perverse decision we have made somewhere or sometime. It is the death of time which has passed, the accumulation of knowledge which has confronted us with despair.

We simply know too much"

--George Oppen, a fragment, from Selected Prose, Daybooks and Papers

February 20, 2009


Life consists of antagonism.

Struggle against those of ill will, shifting reefs which hole the ship below the waterline.

--Alphonse Daudet, In the Land of Pain

Photographs: Radek Skrivanek

February 19, 2009


February 15, 2009

Within the Lining of the Heart

Standing on the edge of the Pacific Ocean is to see its force and know its immensity; dark gray undulations and white foam peaks, the constant shifts, the pattern of motion and invisible depth growing all the way to the horizon, all of it always familiar yet always in every second of light change and motion, new. But to wade into it, even just ankle deep, was something different. The wave would come in cold and thick, enveloping, making you part of the water and pushing away what counts as shore. Then as if after some exhale, the water returns to the ocean, pulling you with it. You hold your ground, claim your spot, dig your cold feet into the sand, only to find that it too dissolves under the movement. You are stuck and vulnerable, caught in the watery sand as another wave comes, which is constant, and it feels larger than before, as if the ocean were trying to find the necessary gravity to absorb whatever would resist it.

Under the pressure brought by the torrents of history, the feeling of being absorbed by a language, a way of being, and a grounding alien to one's own mode of cultivation is so amplified that the quiet adjustments and deflections, the slight forms of re-articulations and the almost imperceptible, except by accretion, variations on the performance of self give way to more dramatic gestures. And rather than for showing it is for knowing, within the lining of the heart, how one will claim presence in the world.

The Egyptian Jewish poet Edmond Jabes, who at an advanced age landed in France after being cast out of his native land, wrote lovingly of a certain practice known to belong to the Marranos of Spain. Against the tide of forced conversion these

"carried in a well-hidden pocket fitted into the lining of one of their wide sleeves -- usually the left -- a tiny book of commentaries on the Torah or with the prayers of their childhood.

Thus, while making a show of humble submission to the implacable masters' will, they could at any time stroke with their free hand, through the dense material that protected it from being seen, the book of their ancestors and reaffirm with their secret, but O how significant, gesture their loyalty to the words of their invisible and now also silent God."

In a prison in China in the 1970s revolution, the landscape painter Mu Xin was imprisoned and given paper on which to record a "self-criticism." Instead, he wrote out a kind of dialogue with those who were not there but who nonetheless informed his choice to survive hopelessness.

The scraps of paper were archived, it is said, in the cotton lining of his prison uniform, encasing him, armoring him for life. And surely more than the words themselves, and the ideas that incited him to write, he felt the paper he had written on as he turned or sat or twisted. He must have felt, like a current, that slight resistance to the body's movements there within the fabric, like an invisible aura.

Paintings by Mu Xin: "The Beach" and "Spring".

February 10, 2009

A Forced Relocation of Values: What the Soldier Saw

When they went into attack they used to wear their blankets as capes, slit in the middle, plunged over their heads and blowing out, trailing about them in the wind. He loved that. That was as close as one came in this war to an heroic stance, to a banner, to a suggestion of flair or gesture. Of course, it was not for the sake of image, or even warmth that they wore them so, but rather in the superstition or belief that they created an indefinite and distributed target. Often, after an assault or firefight on patrol, they would count the holes in their blankets and marvel -- how was it possible to remain so invulnerable! And I suppose that was partly it, a way to press closer to the myth of immortality, of one's own state of blessedness and magical survival. Each throw of the dice that left you in possession of the field and unscathed built the incredible and sacred odds within which you breathed, and walked. The air was keener, sweeter in your nostrils in that time -- each choice, each insignificant choice, no longer insignificant.

He remembered once, advancing across a field under a cordon of fire where the sporadic tracers floated like fiery bees in a soft net in the air about them; and as they advanced in a staggered line up a broad slope of golden field at a slow walk, firing assault fire, the wind took their capes and wove them around them from their shoulders in dark and sinuous veronicas, as though each of them was passing by his own dark and deadly beast. Afterwards, he would think that in all his life he had never seen anything quite so beautiful.

--Robert Gajdusek, Resurrection

February 4, 2009

The Drone of History

He had already been co-opted into the soft legitimation of torture. When Cheney, and then Bush, made such public and prideful pronouncements about instigating illegal practices, their war-crimes posturing was met with niceties about looking to the future. Instead of prosecuting past violations, all attention would be on the pragmatic necessities of the current situation. In other words, there would be no turning back, as if the storm of progress made it an impossible, naive notion.

Now Obama, no doubt having to prove himself to the mechanisms of "defense" and "security," authorizes air strikes in the remote reaches of Pakistan, continuing and intensifying the Bush administration's fall offensive.

The use of robotics in war has greatly expanded in the laboratories of Iraq and Afghanistan, from the variety of surveillance and de-mining contraptions to a hope for the coming deployment of mobile machine guns. The drone, an unmanned missile machine in the air, is the prime symbol.

Aristotle, Diderot, Hume, Smith, Orson Welles in The Third Man. All spoke of, or wondered at, the moral freedom born of distance. "But for the fear of punishment," wrote Diderot, "many people would find it less hard to kill a man at a distance from which he appeared no larger than a swallow, than they would to slit a bullock's throat with their own hands."

And if the swallow-sized man is on a screen visible to someone couched in a remote location of Nevada or Colorado, or nothing more than a piece of intelligence data, invisible in a potentially crowded house, the calculus surely becomes all the more absolute; a deeply seductive temptation to do a good job.

Add to this, the creeping corrosive dissemination of the images themselves. Their circulation must also play a roll in the ways in which the discipline of war turns on the discourse of games: some sense of control and some lack of ultimate consequence.

Or worse, it becomes, as Don DeLillo suggested in various ways, a plot from which one cannot turn and within which one's participation is sanctified by history itself.

And so if the decision is not really a decision, and instead a deferred look toward some future in which morality and illegality and consequences will not matter -- retreating into the imagined past -- then the moment seems to find its inarguable and necessary form, as if "history is to blame."