Hold It All

Category: Intellectuals

To Have Been Exiled by Exiles

I was rereading Edward Said’s Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, which is a great collection of essays on literature and  culture with exploration of the experiences of dislocation, exile, migration, and empire as well as an examination of autobiographical themes, like Egypt, music and piano; the intellectual and academic life; and Palestine.  Here are some reflections that caught my attention…

 

[Mahfouz] is not only a Hugo and a Dickens, but also a Galsworthy, a Mann, a Zola, and a Jules Romain. 318

Mahfouz’s novels, his characters and concerns, have been the privileged, if not always emulated, norm for most other Arab novelists, at a time when Arabic literature as a whole has remained marginal to Western readers for whom Fuentes, Garcia Marquez, Soyinka, and Rushdie have acquired vital cultural authority.  320

Indeed, in Lebanon the novel exists largely as a form recording its own impossibility, shading off or breaking into autobiography (as in the remarkable proliferation of Lebanese women’s writing), reportage, pastiche, or apparently authorless discourse.  322

What Khoury finds in these formless works is precisely what Western theorists have called “Post-Modern”: that amalgam principally of autobiography, story, fable, pastiche, and self-parody, highlighted by an insistent and eerie nostalgia.  323

Read the rest of this entry »

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“My Library Is What Is in My Head”

Leland Poague, ed.Conversations with Susan Sontag
University Press of Mississippi, 1995

Sometimes I feel that, in the end, all I am really defending—but then I say all is everything—is the idea of seriousness, of true seriousness. What strikes me is how unambitious and superficial most American literature is. 245

I write to be part of literature, not for other people. 262

Reading these interviews, I was reminded how clueless I was as a Bellarmine graduate. It was my senior week, 1982, no classes, and I was sitting in the cafeteria waiting to lunch with James Petrick and Paul Fleitz, and prof and poet and Merton intimate Ron Seitz sat beside me and asked me what I wanted to do now.  I mumbled something to him, and he offered me a wry smile as he said, “So you want to be an intellectual, don’t you?”  Yes, Ron, I did, but had precious few models.

I became keenly interested in the work of Susan Sontag quite late, 2003, in fact, while reading her speech for an award in which she linked the witnesses of Oscar Romero and Rachel Corrie, the latter who had been bulldozed to death by an IDF soldier while serving as a volunteer wit the International Solidarity Movement. Later that year, I and friends from St. Louis went to Palestine and gave time with the same organization.  I read many of her essays which were posted at Znet in the following years.   A “gluttonous reader,” Sontag reminded me of Edward Said and George Steiner, whom I began reading in the 1990s.

The following excerpts spoke to me: first, what some of her interviewers made of Sontag, and, second, some of her reflections on themes important to me over the years….

_______________________

Bellamy: No one could have been more charming and cooperative. 35

Raddatz: If I had to apply the word “intellectual” to a single person, only she would come to mind. She has a lightening-like joy, an inexhaustible curiosity about events and processes even of the most remote type… 88

Lesser: Her own tone, however, is one of eminent rationality. If she is the modern version of the nineteenth-century sage, then she is certainly a toned-down Ruskin, a sane Nietzsche—and in fact a great part of her appeal as a stylist lies in that reasonable tone of certainty, that restrained assertiveness, that assurance of her own well-groundedness. 92 Read the rest of this entry »

Giving No Peace to Those in the Country Who Are Violating All the Laws of Truth  

She represented the honor and conscience of Russia, and probably nobody will ever know the source of her fanatical courage and love of the work she was doing.

— Liza Umarova, Chechen singer

 

Colleagues helped put together the volume, Is Journalist Worth Dying For? about the intrepid Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, assassinated in 2006.  The book contains writings from the last years of her life as well as stirring testimonies by those who knew her and respected her work.

For years she’d written about the horrors in Chechnya, which earned her the denunciation you’d expect from her own government.  From Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn, such dissidents are ever a thorn in the side of Russian power, which thinks  it is, or should be, worthy only of praise.

Here is a small sample of her voice…

I have never sought my present pariah status and it make me feel like a beached dolphin. I am no political infighter. 

I will not go into the other joys of the path I have chosen: the poisoning, the arrest, the embanking by mail and over the Internet, the telephoned death threats. The main thing is to get on with my job, to describe the life I see, to receive visitors every day in our newspaper’s offices who have nowhere else to bring their troubles, because the Kremlin finds they stories off-message. The only place they can be aired is in our newspaper, Novaya gazeta.

What am I guilty of? I have merely reported what I witnessed, nothing but the truth.    [6]

Believe me, there is nothing more hateful than, in your own country, to feel that you are a target for shooting practice for parasites living it up, eating and drinking at your—a taxpayer’s—expense. And then they have the gall to denigrate you. [17] Read the rest of this entry »

Alexander Cockburn on Edward Said

Only last week did I learn that Alex Cockburn had a book that came out in 2013, A Colossal Wreck. Earlier today I was reading entries from 2003, and came across this tribute to Edward Said.  Here’s an excerpt, with reference to Christopher Hitchens (Andrew Ivers, take a peek): “He never lost the capacity to be wounded by the treachery and opportunism of supposed friends. A few weeks ago he called to ask whether I had read a particularly stupid attack on him by his very old friend Christopher Hitchens in the Atlantic Monthly. He described with pained sarcasm a phone call in which Hitchens had presumably tried to square his own conscience by advertising to Edward the impending assault. I asked Edward why he was surprised, and indeed why he cared. But he was surprised and he did care. His skin was so, so thin, I think because he knew that as long as he lived, as long as he marched onward as a proud, unapologetic and vociferous Palestinian, there would be some enemy on the next housetop down the street eager to pour sewage on his head.”

 

Three Views: Lévy, Golan, Chomsky

1.

Bernard-Henri Lévy wrote a “Love Letter to Israel in Seventy Lines,” published in The Tablet  under 70 REASONS TO CELEBRATE ISRAEL.   He is a philosopher who lives in Paris, France.  Here are a few lines from his tribute…

The first multiethnic nation, in other words, that really works.

Democracy is hard? Slow? It takes time to build a democracy? In Israel, one night—14 May 1948—was all it took.

Terrorism has been in Israel not for 7 days (as it had in the United States when the Patriot Act was passed) and not for 7 years (as in the France when the liberticidal measures of 1961 were adopted), but for 70 years—and yet its institutions hold and liberty is not infringed.

Yes, 70 years during which Israel has lived, as the verse has it, beside its sword, and yet the spirit of liberty has never waned or wavered.

70 years without a single day of peace, and no Israeli, Jew or Arab, would leave the country for another.

Athens, not Sparta. Read the rest of this entry »

To Contend, To Enliven, To Distance, To Advocate, To Investigate, To Rally, To Prioritize, To Surprise

I’ve read Anne Waldman since 2001 (Fast Speaking Woman: Chants and Essays got me started). Her epics, poems, interviews, and edited anthologies (from the Kerouac School at Naropa) have stimulate and open up possibilities. One of her most engaging books is OUTRIDER: Poems, Essays, Interviews. For you, friends in the writing sangha, I offer the following passages:  May one or more of these be a goad, an encouragement, an invitation.

Worry the essential library. Write what you would want to read. Utopian poetics, what you want to read. 15

A good idea: Contemplative education. Non-competitive education. 17

Maker of books she might be. Maker of schools. 23

Encourage street corner culture. What happens below the radar. 27

Nowhere to go again but the library. 29

To contend, to enliven, to distance, to advocate, to investigate, to rally, to prioritize, to surprise. 31

To vocalize. To mouth the impossible. 31

I have declared in one manifesto, a writing beyond gender, and have tried to inspire a poet’s Bodhisattva Vow, in which one becomes a bridge, a path, a shelter, whatever is required, for others. And one reads and studies and performs… for the benefit of others. 46 Read the rest of this entry »

Unpronounceable Words

George McGovern and William R. Polk, Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now

March 2007

Dear Andrew,

I have finished McGovern and Polk’s primer on the catastrophe in Iraq and how to get out of it. It does remind me in form of Carter’s book on Palestine: short, succinct, easy to read, intended for a huge audience. Certainly, a huge audience in America could and should be enlightened by this book. Early on, the authors ask, “How can a person distinguish between propaganda and fact?” And they respond in a way that is a challenge to us, CTSA, and our students: “The short answer is diligence and time, plus a healthy dose of skepticism.” [14] “The challenge is to devote the time. On the Iraq war the American public and Congress clearly did not.” [15]

The early chapter on what is Iraq and who are the Iraqis would be welcome, I think, for so many of our students, given their (our?) poor sense of history and geography. I am reminded of a remark a young Palestinian woman made to me in Ramallah, “We know everything about America, and Americans know nothing about us.” Her remarks generalize beyond Palestine, of course. The authors show how embedded journalism does us no real service: “Few reporters went to Iraq knowing the local language, and so they could not hope to get the opinions and observations of most Iraqis. We tend to accept this fact as a given, because Arabic is a difficult language known to few Americans, but we should ask ourselves how we would rate reports on American political affairs written by a Chinese journalist who could not speak or read English.” [10] Read the rest of this entry »

When Simone Met Simone

Most interesting among [Alain’s disciples] was Simone Weil, the future author of Gravity and Grace, who was taking the same classes as the future author of The Second Sex.  Simone Weil dressed oddly and always carried copies of Libres Propos and the Communist newspaper L’Humanité that spilled from her pockets. She was extremely committed politically, and she took the world’s sorrows personally. The strength of her convictions prompted her to become a worker at the Renault auto factory, to join the international brigades at the time of the Spanish civil war, and later to work at the Free French headquarters in London during World War II. Simone de Beauvoir wanted to get to know her fellow student and managed to start a conversation that soured abruptly when Weil declared flatly that the only thing that mattered was “the Revolution which will feed all the starving people of the earth.” De Beauvoir shot back that the only thing that counted was to make sense of the reason for human existence. Weil lashed out, “It’s easy to see you’ve never gone hungry!” and this effectively ended the exchange. Yet there was much common ground between this doctor’s daughter who had never lacked for anything and a Simone de Beauvoir who was always just a few steps ahead of privation.

–Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier, Simone de Beauvoir: A Life, A Love Story

 

Three Hours in the Morning

In Talking with Sartre, U.S. professor John Gerassi explores a fascinating range of subjects with the French intellectual, writer, and activist.  At the book’s conclusion, Gerassi writes, “What we must do instead, he said, is commit ourselves over and over again. No act is pure. All acts are choices, which alienate some. No one can live without dirty hands. To be simply opposed is also to be responsible for not being in favor, for not advocating change. To fall back on the proposition that human actions are predetermined is to renounce mankind. No writer can accept the totalitarianism implied by ‘human nature.’ If he writes, he wants to change the world—and himself. Writing is an act. It is commitment.”   Throughout,  I became particularly intrigued by Sartre’s musings and reflections on the writing life…

Projects don’t exclude death—projects are the antithesis of death. That’s an important difference. The project is an act. Writing is an act. My projects right now: the next part of CDR. Then I think I want to write my political testament.  16

I never changed in my being: I am what I am and write. 30

Once one decides to be a writer, one’s conception of life, one’s whole being changes. … travel, experience as many different circumstances as possible. Go into every world. Go see how the pimps live in Constantinople. Why Constantinople? There are pimps right here, around the corner. Because travel, experience, give a richness to the writing. All adventures help, including sexual adventures, love, et cetera….A writer has to choose the false against the true. When you decided to be a writer, you couldn’t make that choice because you wanted a revolution, you worked for a revolution. I was nothing but what I wrote. You had a goal. I was my goal. 34 Read the rest of this entry »

When It Comes to My Novel, Dear Layla Welcome to Palestine, Elie Wiesel Took the Words Right out of My Mouth

I no longer see literature as an art or entertainment. For me literature must fulfill a certain mission in categories of history and justice. Literature is the art of correcting injustices. If there is nothing else I can do, I write a book. This is precisely the task of the witness today, of the modern storyteller, of the Jewish writer. We use words to try to alter the course of events, to save people from humiliation or death.

–Elie Wiesel, Against Silence, edited by Irving Abrahamson, v. 3, p. 116