July 14, 2009

Centuries More of Unrest

Too old to carry arms and fight like the others --

they graciously gave me the inferior role of chronicler
I record -- I don't know for whom -- the history of the siege

I am supposed to be exact but I don't know when the invasion began
two hundred years ago in December in September perhaps yesterday at dawn
everyone here suffers from a loss of the sense of time

all we have left is the place attachment to the place
we still rule over the ruins of temples spectres of gardens and houses
if we lose the ruins nothing will be left

I write as I can in the rhythm of interminable weeks
Monday: empty storehouses a rat became the unit of currency
Tuesday: the mayor murdered by unknown assailants
Wednesday: negotiations for a cease-fire
the enemy has imprisoned our messengers

we don't know where they are held that is the place of torture
Thursday: after a stormy meeting a majority of voices rejected
the motion of the spice merchants for unconditional surrender
Friday: the beginning of the plague Saturday: our invincible defender
N.N. committed suicide Sunday: no more water we drove back
an attack at the eastern gate called the Gate of Alliance

all of this is monotonous I know it can't move anymore

I avoid any commentary I keep a tight hold on my emotions I write about the facts

only they it seems are appreciated in foreign markets
yet with a certain pride I would like to inform the world
that thanks to the war we have raised a new species of children
our children don't like fairy tales they play at killing
awake and asleep they dream of soup of bread and bones
just like dogs and cats

in the evening I like to wander near the outposts of the City
along the frontier of our uncertain freedom
I look at the swarms of soldiers below their lights
I listen to the noise of drums barbarian shrieks
truly it is inconceivable the City is still defending itself

the siege has lasted a long time the enemies must take turns
nothing unites them except the desire for our extermination
Goths the Tartars Swedes troops of the Emperor
regiments of the Transfiguration
who can count them
the colors of their banners change like the forest on the horizon
from delicate bird's yellow in spring through green through red to winter's black

and so in the evening released from facts I can think
abut distant ancient matters for example our
friends beyond the sea I know they sincerely sympathize
they send us flour lard sacks of comfort and good advice
they don't even know their fathers betrayed us
our former allies at the time of the second Apocalypse
their sons are blameless they deserved our gratitude therefore we are grateful

they have not experienced a siege as long as eternity
those struck by misfortune are always alone
the defenders of the Dalai Lama the Kurds the Afghan mountaineers

now as I write these words the advocates of conciliation
have won the upper hand over the party of inflexibles
a normal hesitation of moods fate still hangs in the balance

cemeteries grow larger the number of defenders is smaller
yet the defense continues it will continue to the end

and if the City falls but a single man escapes
he will carry the City within himself on the roads of exile
he will be the City

we look in the face of hunger the face of fire face of death
worst of all -- the face of betrayal

and only our dreams have not been humiliated.

--Zbigniew Hebert, "Report from the Besieged City."

July 9, 2009

The Knowledge of Violence

When Rene Girard describes an education of violence, he appeals to the possibility that there is something to be learned from war's disasters, that there may be an escape, through a retrospective appraisal, from the mimetic economy of war-making and the logic of attack-counter-attack-wounding-revenge-plot-wounding-attack-counter-attack.

In the 1960s, dismayed at the cultural numbness that seemed to permeate the rebuilt Germany, Adorno wrote that if nothing else, the hollow echo of postwar appeals to Hitler and fascism should have been unthinkable. And if not by attention to the victims of the regime, then at least by virtue the brute sufferings endured by even the staunchest nationalist supporters. But instead, there seemed little interest or capacity to connect the ideology designed to dispense destruction outward and the ruinous results absorbed, best symbolized by Hamburg, Dresden and Berlin.

And so one thinks too of Brecht's postwar version of Antigone where the tragedy is not in the image of a controlling Creon who comes to see his error too late, but in the "unteachable" Creon, a maker of war who controls even the dead.

Still, Girard, citing Clausewitz, describes the extreme forms of mimetic desire that drives war forward and the race toward forms of destruction. And from this Girard holds to the possibility of breaking that cycle, insisting, however quietly, that violence can teach one what not to do. There is, he says, a possible otherwise: one can make a leap out of the tragic propulsion by refusing the rules given and the form to be copied.

Is this what Robert McNamara, who died this week, did late in his life, after helping to formulate the air terror inflicted on Japan and unleashing the "rolling thunder" of the bombing of Vietnam? Did he testify to a new vision?

McNamara's memoir, In Retrospect, and his presentation in Errol Morris's The Fog of War, may have been appeals for a forgiveness most would not and should not grant. It might have also been a Girardian attempt: to learn from the process of deciding upon such horrific destruction, to dispense a new wisdom of war in the nuclear age, to teach the lessons that might instigate a new mimetic desire for avoiding war, for developing empathy, for an illumination beyond a crude, groping violence. But there are still deep reservoirs of thought and memory that McNamara seems incapable of fathoming. What we hear instead of learnable lessons is the cadence of someone who long ago passed from the realm of the living. He remains too comfortably on the surface of his survival and so the lessons seem hollow, escapist, the tragic in lockstep with the insight.