Essay / 9 June 2022

Immured in Terror of Madmen

Author of the Week: Croatia

Poetry and War

In my experience as a reader, there are three major approaches to writing about war, each with its own focalization, neither of which I find better than the other two, and all of which I consider insufficient to bring us any closer to deeper understanding of the phenomenon of war. In saying this I do not want to downplay the power of literature, quite the contrary—books have saved as many lives as doctors. But it is hard not to feel powerless in times like these, when the correspondence between Einstein and Freud titled Why war? still lingers above our heads and not only do we lack answers ninety years later, but we are no longer even sure about the definitions of the basic terms Freud mentions in one of his responses, as if the meaning of certain words dissolved with (ab)use. Logos, floating in a sea of theories, fabricated narratives, and psyop information, seems to have withdrawn from the battlefield and violence once again holds sway. At least this is what we see through our Eurocentric binoculars. To overcome brute force we need a union, writes Freud. Still, the essential prerequisite of the mechanism seems to be stuck in a repetitive pattern he describes:

For the transition from crude violence to the reign of law, a certain psychological condition must first obtain. The union of the majority must be stable and enduring. If its sole raison d'être be the discomfiture of some overweening individual and, after his downfall, it be dissolved, it leads to nothing. Some other man, trusting to his superior power, will seek to reinstate the rule of violence and the cycle will repeat itself unendingly.

In the narcissistic culture of the twenty-first century, the psychological circumstances of an individual seem to enable the position of power to shift to those who mirror our own shortcomings and the underdeveloped state of our collective psyche.

The Einstein–Freud correspondence (1931/1932), somewhat intermittent in nature, has led me to a similar space in the field of political philosophy. In the first of his two essays in Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm (2015) Agamben visually presents the (vicious) cycle of the phenomenon of civil war. While ‘polemology’ (a theory of war) as well as ‘irenology,’ (a theory of peace) both exist, he claims, there is no ‘stasiology,’ (a theory of civil war); yet what we witness today is almost exclusively this type of war (Yemen, Syria, Myanmar, Libya, Ethiopia, Afghanistan etc.). If one accepts his claim that terrorism is a global civil war, one could come to the conclusion that there is almost no other type of war nowadays. This contention governs the second of the two of his essays, the one titled “Leviathan and Behemoth”. Through the comparison of two monsters, one of the sea and other of the land, Agamben indicates that political representation is merely ostensible, but of course, no less effective on that account. He refers to Hobbes as he makes a distinction between the people and the citizens, and asks the following question: What becomes of the multitude of natural bodies once it has been unified in the king/government? Well, according to Hobbes, not much: Common men, and others who do not notice these things, always speak of a great number of men, that is, of the city [civitate], as the people; they say that the city rebels against the king (which is impossible), and that the people will and nill what troublesome and murmuring subjects will and nill; under the pretext of the people, they rouse the citizens against the city, that is, the multitude against the people. (Hobbes 1983, 190)

Essentially, he argues that one cannot differentiate the sovereign from the people once he is constituted—even if through an optical illusion, that is by the body of the subjects. Both in a democracy and an aristocracy, “as soon as the council has been constituted, the people seem to simultaneously dissolve.”

Another important question arises: What must disappear in order for the State to be able to exist? To truly ponder it requires a willingness to dwell in an uncomfortable place, only to realize that our social contract contains an internal split akin to the one inside many of us. Jung wrote about the need to end your own inner civil war first, but we seem as inept at that as we are at maintaining the world peace. Politics, philosophy, psychology, laden with more insights than we can really take in as they are, seem to leave us lost in the dark forest of our subconscious, our fears, uncertainties, and projections, in almost desperate need of a story to relate to, the comforting shelter of the poetry, the voice that whispers from within as we drift, once again, between the pages of a book.

I believe that art, especially literature, has the power to guard and accompany us through the hardest of times, to provide nourishment for the spirit, a safe place for our suppressed emotions pushed to the surface, a challenge for our ideological inhibitions.

But only art that is open and anchored in mutuality can provide this. When it comes to the topic of war, I distinguish, as a reader, three dominant focalizations: one of a child, a soldier and a (more or less) distant and (more or less) experienced observer. To cover the topic of war from the perspective of a child often does two things—it denies the concept of responsibility to both the focalizer and the reader, and it addresses war from the perspective of an innocent child. A wonderful example of a text that avoids this trap is Ágota Kristóf’s The Notebook (1986). The second focal position, the one of a soldier, is used to describe all kinds of horrors, violence and suffering, but usually all of this remains separated from its political justification and dissociated from one’s inner battlefield. Therefore, the insight it offers into the wasteland of human experience is of little depth unless the gap between life and death is somehow bridged. I would say that both childhood and battlefield remain areas where archeology of human spirit does not dig too deep. However, there are books that manage to merge dichotomies, shift perspectives, speak the language of horror and yet not become consumed by it, the books that deliver a texture through text. One of them is surely Mikhail Shishkin’s skillfully woven epistolary novel The Light and the Dark (2014), with its sense of a threshold being created by the beauty and sharpness of a language I could hardly grasp at the time.

And finally, there is the focalization of an (experienced) observer, who may or may not be a survivor, who may or may not be capable of delivering the multiplicity of perspectives and experiences. Usually only those observers with great capacity for empathy can provide true literary panopticons. Otherwise, one runs the risk of falling for (dominant) feel-good solidarity narratives based on moral obligation rather than empathy, pity ploys or ideological pamphlets that usually rob the reader of the paradoxical and complex aspects of war and its effects on the inner landscapes of human spirit. Apeirogon (2020), last novel by Colum McCann, set in the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a stunning literary symphony composed on the threshold between fiction and non-fiction, a kind of spatiotemporal loop that embodies more perspectives one may imagine possible and offers a layered depiction of war through the infinite number of realms in which it operates, seemingly separated from peace, but actually tightly interconnected with it. Embodying a profound prayer for peace in the void of loss, anger and grief, McCann guides his readers into the heart of a conflict, but also into their own heart of hearts.

Our inner conflict is usually located in the no man’s land of what we think we are and the traits that we are not aware of, that nonetheless operate autonomously in the backstage of our psyche. This often reveals that one is inevitably less good than one imagines to be. The only thing that can bring end to the inner civil war, Jung claimed, is the reunion—of our (imagined) goodness and our suppressed (and therefore outwardly demonized) evil. Simple, yet so profoundly difficult an endeavor. Seems that our next revolution actually needs to start within ourselves. If it fails (once again), the circle of stasis will continue. To enter the field of our own trauma, to face the tyrants that rule our own inner territories, to allow oneself to feel the most conflicting emotions—perhaps this in itself is a valid first step that could eventually take us to the higher emotional and cognitive awareness and help channel our aggressive impulses in less destructive ways.

An African proverb says that the child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth. Are we really embraced by our villages or do we deny ourselves in order to be accepted? Are we abused, mocked, blackmailed and tortured by those who are supposed to guide and protect us? Why have we appointed to the positions of power ones that perpetuate the abuses? Under the mask of ruthless power and sharp decisiveness there is ever so often a wounded and irrational child, moving around, burning everything in its pursuit of warmth.

Walter Benjamin, whose famous essay Toward the Critique of Violence is as relevant today as it was in Weimar Germany, bought a reproduction of Angelus Novus by Paul Klee in 1921. In the ninth thesis of his essay Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940) he wrote:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Humanity is at a threshold—it feels somewhat like being inside Klee’s Angelus Novus. Can we really pinpoint this place? Nicole Loraux, whose studies mark the beginning of the analysis of civil war (stasis), first situates this problem in its specific locus, which is to say in the relationship between the oikos, the family or the household, and the polis, the city. It is in this uncomfortable (non)place, a kind of (non)political threshold of (false) fraternity that the most insightful literature about war is created. It is also the place where one needs to look for the remedy for the consequences of our zero-sum games.

In Orestea the cycle of retaliation comes to an end when Athena introduces the new legal system. In the post-Yugoslav wars, the legal system (both local and international) turned out to be a slow, semi-functional one, unable to lay foundations for reconciliation, connection, and cooperation. The threshold between the family and the city remained the place where little to no progress has been achieved. Due to the disconnection and social taboos surrounding trauma, our cycles of violence keep repeating while we crave an educational and emotional revolution, but most of all a revolution of values. We urgently need the trauma-aware approach to healing. However, as long as we are governed by capitalist agenda, the price of it remains too high. It is not hard to notice the direct connection between the current structural crisis of capitalism and the reoccurring military endeavors worldwide. The contemporary cyber Middle Ages with their dominant monetary policy are nothing but crisis management gone mad, safety narrative gone mad, power abuse gone mad. Denial or lack of integrative perspective may accelerate the implosive process of our (self)destruction. Painfully aware of the interconnectedness of our historical, psychological, and economic patterns, we are invited to abandon the position of a child (irresponsibility), a soldier (identification through opposition), and a moralistic judge (polarity), and start looking for a position from which we can address the paradoxical complexities of our times. Without this fundamental change of perspective, different future can be neither imagined nor written, let alone built.

War is a rupture, a dissociation, a disconnection. If there were only one value that is reinforced (and I believe there are many) through literature, it would be (re)connection. If there is a way to start healing and reconciliation, it is always an attempt to connect, to share, to understand one another, even if our experiences differ and our perspectives clash. In order to abandon a polarized concept of the world, I suppose, najprej morš svoj privatni holokavst preživet—you must survive your personal holocaust first. That is a hard pill to swallow, one we naturally try to avoid by all means, using numerous exit strategies and admirable creativity in our methods of escapism, (mis)using even literature for that purpose. However, the pharmakon (Derrida) is within our reach, it is the dosing that we need to master now. Although we may seem to be zaprti v grozi norca, immured in terror of madmen, to paraphrase the title of the poem by Slovenian poet Tibor Hrs Pandur the line quoted above is also from, I believe the wisdom of un-doing, the school of un-learning, and the principle of un-hating still have the potential to be discovered. If not anywhere else, then in literature, in poetry, in the universal language of humanity.

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