What is the poetic response to war?
Image from Flickr via Zoriah
By Richard Falk
By arrangement with Richard Falk
During these days of continuing massacre in Gaza I have found it difficult to focus the mind elsewhere. I came across a short statement of about two hundred words by the great, enigmatic twentieth-century poet, Wallace Stevens, stuck between poems in his Selected Poems, page two hundred and seventy, with a characteristically unemotional title—‘A Prose Statement on the Poetry of War.’
Stevens seems to be telling us that true poetry is a peacetime activity generated by the imagination while poetic responses to war are products of our consciousness derived from the domain of fact. In his words, “consciousness takes the place of imagination.” It is, to be sure, a special kind of consciousness, imbued with what Stevens refers to as the ‘heroic,’ and I would add, the ‘tragic’ and ‘unimaginable.’ We witness horror visually and viscerally, and yet we still too often rely on statistics about killing and dying to shape our sense of the gravity of all that is happening.
Stevens also reminds us that the imagination is not without its own ambitions, seeking to impart a sense of reality that supersedes the facticity of what Stevens is calling consciousness. Ambitions of this sort, situated in the hidden recesses of mental activity, also reflect the strong pull of desire, which if it challenges the prevailing images of what we might call ‘heroic fact’ generates severe feelings of hostility. It is a war zone of its own. Stevens alludes to “the endless struggle with fact” whether in peacetime or during a war, and adds, almost as a cautionary warning, “[b]ut in war, the desire to move in the direction of fact as we want it to be and to move quickly is overwhelming.”
What is it about our world that allows the Guernicas, Auschwitzs, Hiroshimas, Srebrenicas to keep happening?
There is of course a haunting ambiguity in Stevens’ use of the word ‘we’ in this sense. Who are we? Does not our answer, usually not articulated, tell us how we join imagination to fact under the stress of war. The intensities of the ongoing violence in Gaza stifles the imaginative voice because the domain of fact becomes truly, even appropriately, overwhelming. Yet fact can be as victimized by subjectivity as the realms of the imagination, especially when it collides with desire. I think these days of those who would rationalize ‘massacre’ as ‘self-defense’ or dehumanize and demonize victims by branding ‘the other’ as ‘terrorist.’
While attentive to the terrible reality confronting us by the ongoing happenings in Gaza, we should strive for root causes. What is it about our world that allows the Guernicas, Auschwitzs, Hiroshimas, Srebrenicas to keep happening? How do we best identify this genocidal virus that keeps attacking the body politic, and yields tears, but no antidote? Is it the reification of ‘the other’ and of ‘the self’ that allows us to see mostly ‘villains’ and ‘heroes,’ and not children, women, and men? Up to now, we allow these lines of division to be drawn and to dominate the public sphere, and affirm partisanship as ‘realistic’ because the tensions of our world means that either I die or you die, and our leaders find good reasons for us to live and you to die. And so atrocity begets atrocity, a ceaseless cycle with periods of calm and shifts of place, culprit, and victim.
I am reminded of Theodor Adorno’s extraordinary comment—“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”
In reflecting along these lines I am reminded of Theodor Adorno’s extraordinary comment—“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Adorno’s meaning is not immediately evident, nor will it ever be. The cultural critic, Brian Oard, insists that the assertion must be read in its broader context, and in light of Adorno’s own later clarification that softens the specific injunction. If so approached, the statement is meant less literally than if read or invoked as an isolated indictment of what could be described as the indecency of any return to ‘cultural normalcy’ after the enormity of the crimes of the Holocaust.
What Adorno wants us to grasp is that Western culture that allowed Auschwitz to happen included its cultural artifacts, incorporating even the work and worldviews of poets in an overall totality that facilitates the grotesque. It encourages the coldness of indifference and helplessness in the face of the severe abuses of all those who fall outside the protective umbrella of our conscience.
Can we capable of learning anything at all from the corpses being drawn from the rubble of devastation in Gaza day by day? Is not the beginnings of a response, whether in the domains of imagination or consciousness, a refusal to embrace the moral and political delusions of sub-species identities, whether of nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender, and civilization? Until the self merges with the other on a planetary scale, we will feel the pressure to avert our gaze from those crimes against humanity committed on our behalf or against those with whom we have no tribal or national identification. Is such an affirmation of species unity a dangerous utopian dream? We cannot know, but we should realize by now that the its rejection helps explain the recurrence of genocidal nightmares.
Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.