Images: In a film shot by an intrepid independent, during the siege of Fallujah, a woman rushes out on the street with a child clinging to her skirts. A shot rings out, and she rushes back into the house, which is already appearing to collapse. During the first war in Iraq, the newscasters on TV, with indecent alacrity, showed the struggling line of Iraqi soldiers retreating in the desert being vindictively strafed by the victors. Flashback to the Vietnam War: the napalmed child running for her life (they used napalm in Fallujah). And in my own country, the girl kneeling over the body of the student murdered at Kent state, arms outflung in a gesture exactly like the Pietà d’Avignon.
I’m talking about what was fleeting, but also about what is haunting. André Breton in Nadja asks: who is it that I haunt? With chagrin, I ask the same question. Who is it that read an unforgettable haiku that said we walk picking flowers on the roof of Hell? Who is it that remembers a sentence in a diary kept by an inmate of Auschwitz: “No flowers are permitted here”? And who is it who can never forget the first sentence in that stammering, profoundly moving late work of Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of Disaster: “The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact.” And, somewhere buried in the text, the sentence “a child is being killed.” And who is it who, just a few weeks ago at my own dinner table, heard her friends discussing a book called Radical Hope and then spied a quotation by the chief of the Crow tribe discussed in the book:
When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to
the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this, nothing happened. (NYRB, April 26, 2007)
Just as Blanchot had said.
I went to a blue-collar public school that I can barely remember. But I do remember that we were fully instructed about something called the birth of civilization that occurred between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Do my classmates connect that lesson with the mayhem they see on the shameless Fox news?
Who is it that will write revulsion with the unforgettable accents of Coleridge in Fears and Solitude, written April, 1798 during the alarm of invasion:
Secure from actual warfare, we have loved
to swell the war-whoop, passionate for war…
And the lines I have never forgotten when my own revulsion revisits:
And all our dainty terms for fratricide;
terms which we trundle smoothly o’er our tongues
Like mere abstractions, empty sounds to which
We join no feeling and attach no form!
And above all:
…as if the wretch
who fell in battle, doing bloody deeds
passed off to Heaven, translated and not killed…
Translated and not killed! Exactly. We scribes are so good at translating and so limited in the way we confront that harsh, strident word KILLED.
The question of art and politics that we worry with our defective instruments, like a frog’s nerve being teased in the biology lab in high school. Another of the fragments floating in my memory: Gramsci writing in prison that “Homo faber cannot be separated from ”
It brings to mind a compelling work by the artist Alfredo Jaar, an homage to Gramsci bearing in mind Gramsci’s youthful exclamation: “I hate those who are indifferent.” Jaar called Gramsci “One of the most lucid and illuminating intellectuals of our dark times,” and titled his piece “The Aesthetics of Resistance.” Another artist, Constantino Nivola, who was born in Sardinia, as was Gramsci, made a reverent monument to Gramsci. What artist would not respect the anarchist hero, punished for his condition of being a thinker? Yet these are without the slightest question dark times. Dejection is our habitual mode.I once curated an exhibition of paintings from East Germany before the wall came down. A very good painter, Bernard Heisig, scarcely mentioned in the West, wrote a statement in the catalogue:
You cannot prevent war with art. But I can work at it by drawing
a hand, for example, which will make everyone feel that this
hand must not be destroyed.
This was said around 1984. Soon, many hands would be destroyed, as we have seen in brisk reports from Walter Reade hospital.
Dejection, abjection, choose your poison. But remember, there can be an aesthetics of resistance, even about the crime of the destruction of Fallujah, which, as Dolores Jiménez has pointed out in an essay on Siah Armajani’s piece, Fallujah, has a history linked to more than Islam, having been between 258 and 1038, one of the most important centers of Jewish learning. When this ancient city was finally taken by the United States troops in November, 2004, the rampaging of the conquerors was quaintly titled, “Operation Phantom Fury.” Mr. Coleridge, had he been here, would have writhed with indignation, and he would not have failed to notice dejectedly that 36,000 of the 50,000 houses in Fallujah had been destroyed. What ghosts, that haunt me and you, were laid by that phantom fury?