fumes of Beyond
leak thick from our pores."
Paul Celan, “Rich Broadcast…” as translated by John Felstiner, (2001), p. 301.
The coincidence of these lines and the title of this magazine caught my attention. But is this a coincidence? Where does your title come from? Celan says that The Beyond is inside us, the immeasurable and imponderable. We are the ones who are burning. We are those who have been burnt, in the identification of, and with disaster. And we are living the aftermath of what we have been compelled to exude (in Celan's terms). We live inside the thing that exudes from us. We know the situation that surrounded Celan, part of every air he breathed. Our situation is more diffuse. I do not want to be misunderstood, in invoking Shoah and all the immeasurable strains that conjures. There is a contemporary politics that claims the shocking rip and wound in the human fabric that Shoah represents as endless justification for its actions, no matter what they are. I reject this position. It is not what I am talking about.
So what I want to say here is: We have not mourned the failure of modernity enough. The failure to-date.
We have not mourned and comprehended (taken the knowledge inside us) because its failures are pocky, pebbled, irregular (unevenly developed). In our world sector or cadre (defined here, in a friendly way, as made up of people who have enough education, equipment, and access to spearhead on-line journals) we have the more developed gains of modernity, although unequally distributed even inside our sector. Class, race, ethnicity, region, gender, religious culture are some of the filters that bar or inflect the dissemination of the benefits of modernity. But we have not mourned because we are dazzled by the baubles modernity has given to us.
“We need, but lack, a new kind of discourse to disturb out collective consciousness and stir it into practical action that moves beyond mere pity.” Lawrence L. Langer, Preempting the Holocaust, New Haven: Yale U. P., 1998, p. 59
We have to become desperate for our values. These values involve liberal tolerance and social justice.
When Celan changed his name from Antschel, he cast out the following letters: H for Hitler and ST for Stalin.
We are not adequately desperate because we were thinking that this unrolling crisis is not about us: globalization, not about us. Possibility of nuclear war, not about us. Our standard of living, not about us. The militant claims to impose fundamentalist religious laws, not about us. Hence our consciousness was pallid and apolitical; this has been going on for years now. We are still living in a form of amnesia and obliviousness. We are not enraged enough about injustice, about the lacks and losses of others, because we don't see these are part of us. This issue is beyond 9/11. One of the striking things for me about the summer of 2001 was the incredible hope of the G8 demonstrations (the no-global) in Genoa, blasted by the anarchist cadres with police collusion, and then shredded by a police crackdown on demonstrators the likes of which has hardly been seen in Europe in recent years. That was July. Then came September. Our attention thereupon had to be split between two competing critiques of Western modernity—one hopeful, filled with possibility—the “no-global” critique, and the other rancid, suppurating, and vicious—not necessarily a critique, either, but a desire to impose one fundamentalist will to supplant the decadence (as they perceived it) of the West.
We live in one world, many pastures and communities. Every speck of matter is vital. This is an interesting dynamic. What are “our” values, I cannot say without more discussion with you. What are my political values? social justice. gender justice. equality of access to reasonable living goods. economic justice, which means an equalization of society and the “middling” or “working” status of everyone. Access to education to health care, to social goods: genuinely and liberally available. No despoiling of the earth, and the living creatures on it (including us) for profit. The call for an end of global crimes: of exploitation of child labor, of capturing people inside prison-model factories, of the destruction of water, animals, plant life; of the poisoning of people at work by their work. Development without despoiling. Justice. justice. justice for all. Legal rights, civil rights, rights of the liberal state (like the US bill of rights, for freedom of speech, religion, assembly, opinion, legal rights) and of the one world standard (UN Charter). All this means post-capitalist, and post-nationalist values. It means a one-world standard for health, literacy, labor, without a one-world culture. One does not want loss of diversity. But, in the words of the anti-globalization struggle: “another world is possible.” We need another wave of a progressive, socialist movement: a revolution of distribution. We even need, but perhaps cannot fully articulate a joyous transformation. In this gender justice, racial justice, justice and economic distribution are goals. Not only goals—they are the litmus test of governments, economic systems, religious movements.
Living in the long “twentieth” century (in modernity whenever that began—let's say with African enslavement), we have also lived with unacceptable brutality and political malfeasance: genocide, rapine. We have gotten used to the tragedies we inflict on each other while invoking peculiar names: science, religion, nation, commerce.
There is a desperate necessity to act against fundamentalist thought wherever it is found. Right now it is found in four of the major world religions. Hindu fundamentalism in a kind of purgative violence. Israeli fundamentalism that wants to capture Judaism for Israel, as if these were synonymous. They are emphatically not. This move must be resisted at all costs. Ribbons of Christian fundamentalist thinking have captured the government of the the United States. This has been achieved through a series of astonishing acts around the severe tainting of the electoral process, acts with unintended consequences of serious import. Christian fundamentalism has not gone unresisted, but it is still powerful, and its moralist millennarial thinking is grotesque and dangerous in a secular society. Militant, military Islamic fundamentalism, already active, has inserted itself abruptly (with 9/11) into this already toxic situation, creating a four-cornered danger. Islamic fundamentalism has captured some of the ideological institutions of Islam, such as small schools, mosques. It is virulent and believable in its desire to destabilize, by acts of terrorism, other national allegiances, and I would take seriously its desire to impose a retrograde moralism and social norms on the secular institutions of the world. The critique from within of this toxic version of Islam, the understanding of Islam as a potential force for good needs to be supported in our regions of the world.
What is to be done? I can speak only from the place I am standing. As a secular, and non-practicing Jew, embarrassed constantly by the opportunities Israel deliberately resisted for a pluralist society, I support in every way possible the processes leading to solutions involving justice—the rejection of imperialist goals in Israel, the seeking of Palestinean statehood. This may indeed be too late, but there are forces speaking for tolerance, justice, and a new relationship inside Israel. The implications of “too late” are appalling.
I also speak out against the weird canards of anti-Semitism, the most powerful recent manifestation being the statement bruited about that no Jews were in the World Trade Center when the towers were hit by hijacked airplanes and collapsed, Sept. 11, 2001. This is an astonishing manifestation of the malicious, mental distortions of conspiracy theory and special secret knowledge attributed to “Others” (none of whom—in the hundreds? knowing what was to come? picked up the phone to call the FBI, apparently). I have heard this thought, and other forms of conspiracy, from people who should know better, whose apparent incapacity to think through the illogic of this claim should alert us to some of the deep dangers of this cultural and political moment. It has evoked the most peculiar residual phantasms.
The place I am also standing is the US. Here I think the leadership vacuum is of a dimension that we have never seen, or have never seen at a moment of such acute danger. Bush's cowardice and ignorance, the fact that he is a puppet of malign forces of the Right, has become serious—a crisis of legitimacy made all the more toxic because the US is in fact really “under attack” in a physical if inchoate way by Islamic fundamentalist cadres. The liberal democratic state of social fairness and rights is being undermined from within as well as under attack from terrorists. It is being undermined by global capitalism whose head is the US, and by the US government which is well on its way to abrogating civil rights, citizens' rights, and guarantees of basic freedoms that have been the hallmark of the US for two centuries and should be a source of intense national pride. The “accounting” scandals of capitalist institutions, unrolling and intensifying even as I have been writing this in June and July 2002, have made the political undermining of profit-grabbing larceny even clearer. We are destroying our own city to save it. In any polarized situation, with a callous, committed, and under-known set of enemies, the danger is that we become like them. This process is on its way, but it must be resisted assiduously.
Individual citizens have to make two claims. One is for their own bravery in the face of unclear danger. It is interesting that in all the appeals made by this illegitimate Bush government, none is to civic virtue and bravery. The mobilization of the population on its own behalf, the sense of having a real stake in our values (rather than in our possessions or our positions) are politicizing claims that an illegitimate government would rather avoid. What I mean by bravery is simply this: there will undoubtedly be more attacks on the interior of the US and plausibly attacks elsewhere. Even if many fizzle (and several have), even if routes (like buying ambulances or getting false truckers' licenses) are blocked, there will be some more losses of US life on US soil. (It is also possible that cadres may attack such other Western countries as Italy, Germany, France, Spain, England; there seems to be another plan, of guerilla action, for Indonesia, Philippines, China.) This fact needs bravery to confront, because people should be construed as dying not for possessions, or because of the malicious skills of perpetrators, but for our values. This will entail an ideological shift: from complacent comfort and flab to alert civic virtue. A change back to the Republic from the “imperium.”
The US thinks (ideologically) that it is the pivot of all things, superior in all its institutions and practices to all other nations. This is beyond inaccurate; it is fairly dangerous as well as naïve, uninformed and unpleasant. As a teacher confronting this delusion, it is my job to help alter the ideological premises on which the “imperium” has rested. The translation and interpretation practices of intellectuals, poets, writers, and others who can move into fair and respectful international exchange comprise crucial sets of skills and choices that need to be seen as real work, individually and institutionally supported.
My commitments therefore are to the secular ideals of liberal values, clarity of mind, analysis of interests, and social justice. This is why my kind of feminism has always resisted the temptation of quasi-religious, quasi-mystical claims about female specialness, and why my writing has often turned on essayistic, faceted examinations, for this skeptical style and form is an ethical stance.
Here is section 25 from a recently-completed poem called Draft 52: Midrash.
In half-wounded syntax, grid, fragment,
My poems are works of investigation, not primarily of self-expression. I would say they are works of cultural examination. The works I do now, long poems called Drafts, are organized on a great grid that is both heuristic and focused (Drafts 1-38, Toll, Wesleyan University Press, 2001; Drafts 39-57, Engagements, unpublished as yet). These works are influenced by objectivist arguments and propositions about reality. The image is encountered, not found (Oppen). The and a are words worth investigating, as suggestive and as staggering in their implications as myth (Zukofsky). I have a debate with modes of transcendence; I live in materiality which is nonetheless filled with sparks of awe (Niedecker). Would I claim, like Reznikoff, to be simply a walker in the historical world who is also a recording “angel”? That is a little much for me, but there is a ferocity in Reznikoff's mildness that is evocative and that I respect.
chunk chord and collage, make
things to say things
by a “Venture into the dark 'flat' side of their harmony”
suspicious intensities and political laceration
with the investment one sees meditation scrupulous remnant
of twentieth century history I know
what I wanted. It was the endlessly overwritten
erosions of the book, specificities
of book, and the voice of the traveller- detail
poem by its edgy sentence
its ontological intransigence to Let
Be austere hermetic readable urgency.
Smoke and billows salient
shifting so that one is caught in
their whorled resonance, their dark bars, even access blocked.
The beyond is in the surface.
Walking through the dead as partly dead
—it must only be
an impossible draft of half-built, half-crumbled
Angel is a word I can use only in a secular sense—and this is a paradox, because like Rilke, like Benjamin, like H.D. and like Oppen, I have used this word. The presences and energies we feel are our best selves projected despite the inhumanity of humanity. The presences and energies are the deaths we walk upon, are the complexity of the universe with its multiple prongs and dimensions, and are the natural world right in front of us where every bug is hardly understandable, and where ecologies are staggering even as we violate some of their premises.
I do not think I tell people what to think in art, I talk about what I think and I create situations that ask for thought. I want art to “provide consciousness with a critical example” (in the words of Brian O'Connor, alluding to the work of Adorno. (The Adorno Reader, ed. Brian O'Connor, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 2000, p. 281.) The “transformation of consciousness” (Ibid. p. 54) that is demanded would have a different ethics. But this means something very particular and careful about art. In his essay “Commitment,” Adorno proposes that an artist should not produce straightforward political art, or art of commitment, but understand, rather, that the political has “migrated into” all art (Notes to Literature, vol. 2, New York: Columbia University Press, p. 93) and work with those facts and their implications. This is precisely the way I feel at this world moment, “migrated into” by, suffused by a political that has always been present. The results of this migration are visible in Drafts.
I do not think that poetry is a form of propaganda, but it is part of ideological and discursive practices (I try to speak about this in Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, Cambridge 2001). One learns about a poet's opinions and the cultural forces at play in poems in a variety of ways deep inside the texture of the poem, not only from the statements the poem overtly makes. Poetry and its variety of practices can be an arousal to understanding what we stand for, both affirmation and critique. Indeed, by critique, suspicion, skepticism, and “cura”—significant care for language and choices—it can exemplify what it is we really want. Among other things we want is historical depth, revision of convention, scrupulous and witty language saturated with an understanding of other practitioners, work from the past treated at one and the same time with respect and with effervescent inspection. Poetry can help tell us what we want, and what we know: we want to know our own complexity and our own possibility. It can tell us what we should mourn, and how we need to continue to examine systems and shards. In this situation, as in so many others, I remember with attentiveness the poetry and example of George Oppen, who wanted to look, to see what was out there, evaluate its damage and contradictions, to say scrupulously in a pared and intense language not what was easy or right or neat or consoling, but what he felt when all the platitudes and banalities were stripped away. It is the residue of vision, the residue of hope when all due skepticisms and judgments have occurred. He called it the real, “the real that we confront.” (In “Route” New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson, New York: New Directions, 2002, 202)
Rachel Blau DuPlessis