Tag Archives: Kenneth Burke

Why read work in translation?

978-0-7864-2386-6[1]At the ALTA conference in Bloomington last month I attended a session with translator Anne Fountain, who presented on the Versos Sencillos (or “Simple Verses,” as often translated) of José Martí. More specifically, she addressed the benefits of using multiple English-language versions of a literary text in order to teach students about the complex choices involved in bringing that or any text over from one language to another. Professor Fountain, who directs the Latin American Studies program at San José State University in San José, California, is a native of Argentina whose professional focus has been on Cuban literature. I came away from the conference with her very elegant translation of Martí’s most famous work in McFarland & Company’s 2005 “dual-language edition.”

Even if Martí’s name doesn’t immediately ring a bell, there is more than a reasonable chance that you have heard at least a portion of his verse – particularly if you are over forty or fifty years old, or if you have ever studied Spanish in high school. If you are familiar with the folk song called “Guantanamera,” then you might know that its verses consist of a more-or-less random (and varied) sampling of stanzas from Martí’s poems. Growing up in the Sixties I heard the Smothers Brothers perform it on their variety show and have since heard it performed by Joan Baez and undoubtedly others. This edition contains a brief foreword by folk icon Pete Seeger who is principally responsible for the song’s diffusion beyond the Spanish-speaking world.

While I am now retired from classroom teaching, I taught the song to my high-school Spanish classes for some twenty years (in southern Indiana) and even presented it, during my first year of teaching, to my English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) students in Houston, Texas. If I didn’t fully grasp the power of those verses beforehand, I did after I had presented it to those mostly Mexican American students. Teaching in an urban junior high school was a kind of trial by fire for this slow-talking, slow-thinking Midwestern boy and to say that I encountered some discipline problems and youthful resistance would be an understatement. But when I played that song on my guitar, one of the boys who up to that point had tried me the most moved up beside me and listened with a rapt attention. Afterwards he went home and told his parents that, you know, that Mr. Sanders isn’t such a bad fellow after all, that he’s even surprisingly human. I wish I could say that with that gesture I was immediately transformed into another Jaime Escalante (super-teacher who inspired the movie Stand and Deliver), but that would be something of an overstatement. Still, the episode is illustrative of the power of Martí’s poetry to win hearts and move souls.

Here, without the music, are Martí’s verses from the version that I taught, first in the original Spanish and then in Fountain’s excellent translations:

Yo soy un hombre sincero

De donde crece la palma,

Y antes de morirme quiero

Echar mis versos del alma.

(A sincere man am I

Born where the palm trees grow,

And I long before I die

My soul’s verses to bestow.)

Mi verso es de un verde claro

Y de un carmín encendido:

Mi verso es un ciervo herido

Que busca en el monte amparo.

(My verse is a gentle green

And is fiery red in part

In the forest refuge seen,

My verse is the wounded hart.)

Con los pobres de la tierra

Quiero yo mi suerte echar:

El arroyo de la sierra

Me complace más que el mar.

(With the poor ones of this earth

I’ll cast my destiny:

The mountain stream is worth

Much more than the mighty sea.)

The very colorful cover illustration shows Martí walking amidst woods and flowers, with a white horse behind and a wounded deer at his side: Donde el verso es un ciervo herido (Where the Verse is a Wounded Deer), 1996, by the artist Adigio Benítez Jimeno. The title is drawn from the second of the verses cited above, in which the generic “deer” is substituted with the rhyming (and synonymous) “hart.”

To touch briefly on the question of Professor Fountain’s topic, it is a popular assumption that if you’ve seen one translation you’ve seen them all. Isn’t it just a matter of taking the precisely corresponding word in the second language and substituting it for the foreign word? To be brief, no. Even when both translators are competent and careful, differences will appear and each may convey a slightly different nuance, sometimes even a different interpretation altogether. The problem is worse when the translation is done hastily or without attention to detail: beware, in particular, translations found on the average Internet site, which may be particularly bad.

That, of course, is a larger topic, and is perhaps best illustrated by other examples from the text, but the crucial educational point is that the translation / translator does / do matter. There are the good, the bad, and the ugly, and the best are objects to be treasured. For a closer look at the topic of literary translation I would recommend Lucina Schell’s excellent site at www.readingintranslation.com. Even if you aren’t a translator, you might learn something. I am a new visitor myself and have particularly enjoyed her essay on the art of the translator’s introduction.

But my topic is more general: why bother to read work in translation at all? I will not cite the ugly statistics, but we English-speakers in the United States are particularly unlikely to read work originally written in other languages. Though there is a lot of effort being made in particular by small presses and literary translators to bring a greater trove of translated work to the public’s attention. (I have myself recently been reading work translated from German and Polish, two languages that I can’t read in the original, though I am of German ancestry.)

images[2]Anyway, as I was reading Martí’s brief prologue, it occurred to me that one important reason is that we need more perspectives on the world than the very limited and even myopic ones that we get from what passes as a national discourse on foreign and even domestic policy (immigration, anyone?). To broaden our perspective is to add to our “equipment for living,” to use Kenneth Burke’s phrase which is by now at least passingly familiar to readers of this blog. A person (or a people; or a nation) with only one perspective is sadly ill-equipped for the complexities of life in an increasingly interdependent world.

And who better to illustrate the principle, it occurred to me, than Martí, who is universally beloved and respected for his humane verses and struggle for freedom – and who, as a journalist who lived several years in the United States, was a perceptive and friendly interpreter of American affairs and life to his Latin American compatriots.

Which is not to say that he was always an approving observer of gringo society and politics. It was with a worried heart over U.S. efforts to purchase Cuba from Spain, thus subverting to our own ends his people’s struggle for their own independence, that he accepted his doctor’s advice to take a vacation to New York’s Catskill Mountains where he wrote these poems full of reverence for his own land and people – this in 1890, five years before his dying in that struggle in an exchange of fire with Spanish troops.

When he wrote those verses, as we read in his prologue, during “that winter of anguish in which because of ignorance, blind faith, fear, or simple courtesy, the Spanish American nations gathered in Washington under the shield of the fearsome eagle” (he alludes to the Pan American Conference of 1889 in Washington D. C.), he was deeply worried about U.S. involvement in Latin America’s affairs. “Who among us,” he continues, “has forgotten that shield, an emblem on which the eagle of Monterrey and Chapultepec … clutched the flags of the nations of the Americas in its talons?”

The allusion to Monterrey and Chapultepec is to the Mexican War which we fought between 1846 and 1848, during the Presidency of James K. Polk who was anxious to annex what are now our Western states by fair means or foul. As the Spanish American War turned out, while we didn’t get Cuba we did Puerto Rico, among other possessions. Certainly Martí had cause to worry, since our motives and interests were clearly not of a wholly altruistic nature.

Now, today we may argue that those Western states are much better off than had they continued belonging to troubled Mexico. Though it should be noted that one of our most fiercely independent-minded American writers of the day, Henry David Thoreau, wrote his famous essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” in protest of that war which he rightly saw as a war of American aggression against a weaker neighbor – and he went proudly to jail for refusing to pay his war tax.

And while we may argue that Cuba would have been better off with us than under the rule, first, of the tyrant Batista, and then of the Communist tyrant Castro, we will never know how the extremes of Castro’s rule might have been moderated if his movement hadn’t from the outset been threatened by the out-sized power and bellicose threats of its neighbor to the north, who even tried to assassinate him.

Regardless of how individually we might feel about those questions, to me it seems inarguably true that we can scarcely have a meaningful and productive dialogue with other nations or people if it has never even occurred to us that they might view things from a different perspective than we do. And that they might not always look kindly on our efforts, whether real or perceived, to enforce our will on them by military or economic fiat. And (gasp!) that they might have a point: that we could even be wrong, now and then.

None of which is to argue that the United States is the Great Satan, but it could certainly do us good to have a better sense of how the rest of the world perceives us – often for good, but sometimes not so much so. And not without reason, more often than many of us care to admit.

Thus, I would argue, one very practical reason for reading in translation. It equips us to live better and more wisely in a world of varying perspectives, no one of them wholly valid in isolation. Not even ours.


Of course, another reason for reading Martí in translation is for the same reason that people have read and loved him throughout the Spanish-speaking world for over a century: for the sheer pleasure of it, which (with the related concept of beauty) is its own kind of equipment for confronting the sometimes cruel vicissitudes of life. Martí himself, for instance, speaks in one of these poems of the “sweet consolation of verse” (dulce consuelo); and in another he writes, as Professor Fountain translates: “You, poem, are the poet’s friend” – and likewise the reader’s, I like to think.

 I must tell you that, if you are looking to explore these verses on your own, the McFarland edition may seem a bit over-priced at just under $40 for the paper edition. This was also the case when some years ago I purchased my friend Julie Sellers’s delightful book Merengue and Dominican Identity: Music as National Unifier. McFarland does have an impressive list and bills itself as “a leading independent publisher of academic and nonfiction books,” so I suppose their marketing plan is aimed at universities and libraries and that they are thus able to take on projects that would otherwise be cost prohibitive.

1073063[1]If you can’t buy it for yourself, anyway, you might suggest that your local library purchase it. But also there is another edition from the Arte Público Press, by the Cuban American translator Manuel A. Tellechea, that is aimed at young readers and much more modestly priced. I do not have that version available and have not made a comparative study of the translations, though I am familiar with the press and it is extremely reputable.


Language and Propaganda

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Some time ago I read a novel by German writer Günter Grass called (in translation) Crabwalk. Without going into any more detail than the present point requires, it is concerned with historical resentments still present beneath the surface of German society decades after World War II. Part of Grass’s rhetorical point is that when we suppress such resentments they don’t just go away. And if the circumstances that feed the resentments aren’t openly discussed and dealt with, they do more than just not go away – as evident in the resurgence of racist and xenophobic ideology associated with Naziism.

At the risk of over-generalization, I think it fair to say that we have a similar problem in the United States with racial resentments stemming at least indirectly from the Civil War – perhaps more directly from the Civil Rights Era, whose great achievement in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is presently under assault by what I consider a highly regrettable Supreme Court decision and the subsequent frenzy of efforts by state legislatures to press forward in recent efforts (exhaustively well-documented in relation to at least the past two Presidential election cycles) to suppress the minority vote.

Now before I go further in this direction let me just point out, as seems appropriate enough in an essay (as my title suggests) on language and propaganda, that already I have revealed a propagandistic bent to today’s writing. In my defense, before the potentially antagonistic reader jumps ship, let me cite a couple of authorities on the subject of language and rhetoric.

First Richard Weaver, who argues that “language is intended to be sermonic. Because of its nature and its intimacy with our feelings, it is always preaching” (from his essay “The Cultural Role of Rhetoric,” in Professing the New Rhetorics: A Sourcebook, 1994, edited by Theresa Enos and Stuart C. Brown).

And then Kenneth Burke, who writing (in 1926 in The Southern Review) of the proletarian strand in early 20th-century American literature speaks favorably of the sort of propaganda that neither preaches to the choir nor cynically manipulates the reader but instead attempts – “with the more ambiguous talents of the diplomat” – to persuade the reader toward a broader perspective or attitude.

He makes this point in relation to Robert Cantwell’s short story “Hills Around Centralia,” which he offers as “a good example of a crucial propaganda situation embodied imaginatively.” The story, Burke writes, “is based upon the poignancy of the Crucifixion theme (the ‘benefactor’ persecuted as ‘malefactor’). Irony of clashing moralities. The author ‘weights’ his material propagandistically by showing us, first, the morality of the vigilantes in action, and then slowly widening our conception of the total scene by a sympathetic portrait of the strikers. Tactfully, he permits us to see how the interests of the vigilantes have led them to misinterpret the nature of a riot, while their grip upon the channels of education and publicity serves to shape ‘neutral’ opinions in their favor. The opposing worlds (of vigilantes and strikers) are eventually ‘synthetized’ by a bridge device, being brought together when some impressionable boys, who had been bewilderedly subjected to the vigilante view, come upon two strikers hiding in the woods (overtones of the ‘little child shall lead them’ theme). The author’s choice of sides is made atop the ironic, the relativistic – hence, ‘propaganda’ in the fullest sense, because [it is] profoundly humane. Strict ‘proletarian’ morality could not be so ‘shifty.’ It would be pitted squarely against the enemy. But the farthest-reaching propaganda (as a device for appealing to the enemy, and not merely organizing his opposition by the goads of absolute antithesis) requires the more ambiguous talents of the diplomant (who talks to an alien camp in behalf of his own camp.)” (from his review “Symbolic War,” in Equipment for Living: The Literary Reviews of Kenneth Burke, 2010, edited by Nathaniel A. Rivers and Ryan P. Weber).

To return to my earlier point, the fact that I would “propagandize” about the issue of civil rights and the recent Supreme Court decision does not automatically suggest something ham-fisted or nefarious. We all propagandize, or “sermonize,” whenever we address matters of any emotional significance to us and to those we address.

Race in America

Race in America

I come to these thoughts, anyway, in the broader context of my recent comment on the Trayvon Martin verdict (and a subsequent exchange of emails with an old friend and reader). And more immediately in the context of an article from yesterday’s Evansville Courier & Press and an editorial from my local Perry County News – each one of which has some bearing on these particular issues.

The headline of the AP report in the Courier & Press reads: “4 out of 5 adults struggle in poverty”; and the subtitle: “Hardships soar in whites.” The editorial in the local paper addresses the “controversy” over a Cheerios commercial featuring a biracial family.

Within the AP report itself comes the clarification that these four-fifths of U.S. adults “struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives” (italics mine), which still is evidence of increasing economic insecurity, the erosion of the American dream, and the ever-growing gap between rich and poor in this nation. But it also speaks, I think, to the relationship between economic insecurity and the incidence of racial animus and tensions. Because I can’t help but think that the two phenomena are to some degree connected.

It is a curious paradox that in this supposedly “post-racial” era of the Obama Presidency we have experienced such an upsurge in the incidence of white supremacist and other hate groups. And even among the vast majority of generally peaceable Americans there arises a sort of passively violent undercurrent to the emotionality of our response to someone’s pointing out the constant spector of racial profiling that people of color face, and which only exacerbates the perception of a judicial system that is weighted against them – even despite all the obvious gains that have been made since 1965 (though the Supreme Court decision reminds us of how easily even the most dramatic of those gains can be eroded).

A truly Burkean response in fiction to all the partisan feeling of those on the Zimmerman side of the Trayvon Martin debate – a response that is propagandistic in the fullest and most humane sense as Burke defines it – would have to somehow get beneath the layers of fact and (mis)perception to reveal the complexities and the humanity beneath the headlines of black-on-black violence and the much-touted decay of the black American family which are inevitably trotted out as at least partial justification for the reckless behavior that led to that tragic shooting.

As to what shape such a story might take, I can’t really say. Though I have, over the years, made some attempts of the sort. The closest to the present theme is a story called “Little White Sambo,” which after countless drafts and re-drafts ended up very obscurely published in an online venue called River Walk Journal. Though from a perspective necessarily outside that of the black community itself, and only tangentially related to the present circumstance, it does have something of the “little child shall lead them” theme that Burke mentioned. It is a not-too-loosely autobiographical account of my own fairly parochial experience of growing racial awareness.

In the opening sequence I play off an early childhood memory of fever dreams in which I am eternally chased by a tiger which I am certain is going to eat me. That experience is clearly enough connected, in real life as in fiction, to the parallel experiences of being read the Black Sambo story as a child and of eating (this being the early Sixties) at a restaurant called Sambo’s.

In the central sequence my fictional counterpart has moved on from kindergarten to fourth grade and spends a year in a Southern state. At his new school he makes a “best friend” of a black classmate and then naively invites him to spend the night at his house. But is is told that such things are not done there; and in the next scene, surrounded on the schoolbus by threatening white kids “who have been unfavorably noticing this unusual relationship,” he begins to understand why.

In the third and final sequence my only slightly less naive protagonist is in junior high and back in the North where he has been warned away – by a distinctly less friendly black boy – from daring show his face at the basketball game that evening (“Stay home, Little White Sambo, Melvin practically says to him, or I’ll eat you right up”). Stubbornly he goes anyway and the kid keeps his promise and beats him up. But vengeful thoughts are themselves beaten off – as befits my propagandistic need of the moment to transcend that very real violence – by a hallucinatory vision (of the absent boy’s face interposed on the antagonist’s) that descends on him just before and then during the actual beating:

“But it’s as if everything is happening far away from Joey. For this moment it seems that  the anger and fear is all slipping away from him as he has been starting to think it never would. He imagines a soothing presence. The touch of his mother’s hand against his face. His friend Clarence’s voice. He allows himself to believe that the throbbing he’s just now feeling is what’s really being dreamed. That in the morning, after they’re finally done with him, everything will be safe and fine. But of course he’ll have come back to himself long before then.”

By that final sentence, with its apparent negation of the happy vision of peace and harmony, I acknowledge the story’s (and life’s) hard physical reality without denying the idealized hope for transcendence.

imagesCAL06F4WPerhaps someone else can come up with an example more adequate than my poor effort to the present circumstance. But in any case the challenge remains of putting it in the hands of those of the “enemy” camp who might still be persuaded by our literary rhetorics. As polarized as our national dialogue has become, the conjuring of such a persuadable audience often seems more fantastic than Joey’s hallucination.

But try we must. Strive on …


By the way, anyone of my readers who might happen to be in the area of Tell City, Indiana between Wednesday, August 7 and Saturday, August 10 are invited to look for me at the Schweitzer Fest flea market on Town Hall square where I will have copies of my published books (my original historical novella – A Bride Called Freedom – and two works of literary translation) for purchase and signing. I look forward to seeing old friends and making new acquaintances.

Pierre and the peasant Karatayev

equipment150[1]Today I was happy to receive a package containing several books that I purchased with the money my friends and colleagues at Perry Central gave me for my teacher retirement, which has just recently been made official. Among those is a volume of literary criticism: Equipment for Living: The Literary Reviews of Kenneth Burke. It is a thick and attractive volume, edited by Nathaniel A. Rivers and Ryan P. Weber and published in West Lafayette, Indiana by the Parlor Press (www.parlorpress.com). Nathaniel Rivers is known to me as the son of my professor of rhetoric Thomas M. Rivers, who is acknowledged in the prologue for his feedback regarding the book’s introduction.

I have mentioned Kenneth Burke previously in this blog. As a lead-in to the theme of today’s entry I will quote just a couple of sentences from Rivers’s and Weber’s introduction to these collected literary reviews: “One of the many nuances of the ‘equipment for living’ metaphor is that it applies as equally to the creation of literature as to its criticism. We seek strategies for life in literature, whether we are writing it or reading it.”

This, I recognize, has been true of my efforts since young adulthood when I began to keep the journal that since then has grown into more than thirty mostly hand-written volumes, and which I am in the early stages of transcribing / editing / annotating into electronic format. I guess you could say that I am doing this in hopes that those volumes might themselves become equipment for living for the children and grandchildren who inherit them. But in the meantime they are becoming that – again; through the new encounter – for me.

Much of what I have written has been about the writing process itself and my thoughts about whatever I happened to be reading. The first volume contains my re-copied high-school creative-writing-course journal, with accompanying dialogue with my teacher Margaret Meadors. The volume I have just now been transcribing – the writer / reader from age 22 to 24 – contains a great deal about what I was writing at the time and about how I was using it to make sense of recently lived experience. But there is also a pretty fair record of what I was reading, though I am often frustrated by the little to nothing that I wrote about a good deal of it. But when the impact was really strong, the writing showed it.

images[2] In May and June of 1981 I read War and Peace. In the portion of an entry that I am going to share, dated June 27, I wrote about it in the real-life context of whatever disappointment (it hardly matters which) I was facing at the time. What follows is the substance of how I turned Tolstoy into equipment for living:

“I quote Karatayev, the wise and kindly peasant who teaches our hero Pierre: ‘Well, dear man, we thought it was a misfortune, but it turned out to be a blessing! If it had not been for my sin, my brother would have had to go. And he, my younger brother, has five little ones, while I, don’t you see, left only a wife behind … Father, he says: “All my children are the same to me, no matter which finger gets nipped it still hurts. If they hadn’t shaved Platon (Karatayev) for a soldier, then Mikhailo would have had to go” … That’s how it is, my dear friend. Fate has its reasons. But we are always judging: “That’s not right, this is wrong …” Our happiness, my friend, is like water in a dragnet: pull – it expands, take it out – it’s empty. That’s how it is.’ (War and Peace, Anna Dunnigan’s translation, pp. 1159-60)

“Later as Tolstoy narrates: ‘… Pierre was very close to experiencing the utmost privation that a man can endure, but thanks to his good health and strong constitution, of which he had hardly been aware till then, and still more to the fact that these privations came upon him so gradually that it was impossible to say when they began, he bore his position not only lightly but joyfully. And just at this time he attained the serenity and content for which he had long striven in vain. In the course of his life, he had sought in various ways for that peace of mind, that inner harmony, which so impressed him in the soldiers at the battle of Borodino. He had sought it in philanthropy, in Freemasonry, in the dissipations of society, in wine, in heroic feats of self-sacrifice, and in romantic love for Natasha; he had sought it by reasoning – and all these quests and endeavors had failed him. And now, without thinking about it, he had found that peace and inner harmony only through what he perceived in Karatayev. Those terrible moments that he had lived through at the executions had, as it were, washed forever from imagination and memory the disquieting thoughts and feelings that had formerly seemed of paramount importance. It did not now occur to him to think about Russia, or the war, or politics, or Napoleon. It was clear to him that all this did not concern him, that he was not called upon to judge these matters and therefore could not do so. “Russia and summer – like oil and water,” he thought, repeating Karatayev’s words, which were singularly comforting …” (pp. 1207-08)

“And further: ‘That feeing of readiness for anything, of moral alertness, was reinforced in Pierre by the high opinion his fellow prisoners formed of him soon after his arrival at the shed. With his knowledge of languages, the respect shown him by the French, the simplicity and alacrity with which he gave away anything that was asked of him (he received the allowance of three rubles a week made to officers), his gentleness to his companions and his great physical strength, which he demonstrated to the soldiers by pressing nails into the walls of the shed, to say nothing of his capacity incomprehensible to them – for sitting still and thinking without doing anything, he appeared to the soldiers a somewhat mysterious and superior being. The very qualities that had been a source of embarrassment if not actually disadvantageous to him in the world in which he lived – his strength, his disdain for the comforts of life, his absentmindedness and simplicity – among these people gave him almost the status of a hero. And Pierre felt that their regard imposed responsibilities on him.’ (pp. 1209-10)

“Note the lessons that are taught here. We are too quick to judge what is good or bad for us and thus our happiness is shallow, for we do not find strength in trials. Pierre searched everywhere but finally found peace and happiness in the most unlikely circumstances. And note at the end that the very same qualities that society shuns and mocks are the same qualities that really make him a man, that bring him true honor and respect, the respect of other men that imposes on him the responsibility of being a positive influence and example for others.

“As Prince Andrei learns in his experience with death, Christ-like love is a healing balm that puts all our trials in proper perspective. With that love, with that peace that Pierre has begun to taste, our problems and preoccupations are trivial, even laughable. Our worldly concerns vanish into nothingness as the doors of eternity open up to us and we are transformed into different beings, much happier and more satisfied, incomprehensible to those who are enslaved by society and worldly forces but free from accountability to them. This is true beauty. This is what I believe.”

Tolstoy writing

Leo Tolstoy

It is a different man who reads this passage 32 years later. I am not as naively religious as I was then, for one thing, and am more skeptical of Tolstoy the moralist, whose peasant virtues would cause him to flee society completely and disavow his greatest works – including the present one. But today as I sit down to read the great Pevear / Volokhonsky translation of Anna Karenina I realize how deeply I still value what Pierre and Karatayev and Tolstoy himself once taught me about how to face adversity with dignity. It has even come in handy during the course of my latest travails. Though admittedly I have never completely mastered it.

Joseph and His Good Brothers (re-visited)

Kenneth Burke, American philosopher, literary critic, and rhetorician

Kenneth Burke, American philosopher, literary critic, and rhetorician

As it is my intention in this column or blog to attend primarily to literary subjects – and, perhaps more importantly, to place that literature in a context to demonstrate rhetorician Kenneth Burke’s assertion that “literature is equipment for living” – I will soon be turning to a years-old essay of mine whose idea is inspired by the reading of the German writer Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers cycle. But first a couple of related extracts from the news and from documentary film; in particular, Roane Carey’s review of (principally) The Gatekeepers and 5 Broken Cameras in the March 11, 2013 issue of The Nation magazine.

While The Gatekeepers is by an Israeli filmmaker and 5 Broken Cameras by a Palestinian (with an Israeli partner), together they reveal common concerns about the inevitable precariousness of Israeli political / military policy toward the occupied territories. I have written previously about this issue and so will not go back over all those preliminary considerations. The stark fact is the remarkable coincidence in these two films’ revelation of the degree that the Israeli government’s position has become monstrous. The case is given exceptional strength by the source of the criticism in the Israeli film: “… its leading enforcers, six former heads of the General Security Service, or Shin Bet.”

“A key theme of The Gatekeepers,” Carey writes, “is the irresponsibility of Israel’s politicians, who have avoided hard decisions and have abetted the most dangerous elements in society. As [Avraham] Shalom puts it, any talk of a political solution to the occupation disappeared soon after it began, to be replaced only by a tactical focus on fighting terror. ‘No Israeli prime minister,’ he says, ‘took the Palestinians into consideration.’ [Yaakov] Peri observes that every Israeli government either accepted or came to accept the settlements. This gave extremists the feeling they were ‘becoming the masters’ and could do whatever they want.”

To continue, and this is devastating: “Near the end of the film […] Shalom registers one of the strongest criticisms of Israel, saying, ‘We’ve become cruel … to ourselves as well, but mainly to the occupied population.’ Even more astounding, he likens the Israeli occupation to that of the Nazis (making careful exception for the Holocaust itself).” Carey also cites Yuval Diskin as reflecting that, “‘What’s unnatural is the power you have’ to ‘take their lives in an instant.’”

Sadat, Carter, Begin at Camp David

Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter, and Menachem Begin at Camp David in August, 1978

Less is said about 5 Broken Mirrors but as Carey summarizes, it “interweaves scenes of domestic life” with scenes from a Palestinian village’s protests against the occupation wall and the army’s and ultra-orthodox settlers’ wanton destruction of their olive groves: “the fact that five of his cameras were broken by the army in the course of filming is a testament both to his seemingly continuous engagement and the army’s habitually violent response to unarmed protest.”

Of equal interest are some closing remarks about “video testimony collected for the exhibition and research project Towards a Common Archive,” in which Carey quotes a veteran of the 1948 war (the original occupation) whose witnessing of atrocities against non-combatant Palestinians caused him to say: “As a Holocaust survivor, it was traumatic for me.” His and other veterans of that conflict, Carey adds, “undermine the common liberal claim that there are ‘two narratives’ of the conflict, a Jewish one and a Palestinian one. For in stunning detail these veterans echo the story of the Nakba that Palestinians have been telling for sixty-four years. Until we acknowledge the testimony of these veterans along with that of the victims, [filmmaker Eyal] Silvan and [historian Ilan] Pappé say, reconciliation will not be possible.”


Pharoah Akhenaten and family in act of worship

Pharoah Akhenaten and family in act of worship

Now what follows shortly, my readers will likely say, is wondrously naive. A friend once called it “brilliant and naive” (I appreciated his friendly hyperbole on the first count). Without commenting on that point, The New Yorker senior editor Willing Davidson (to whom my essay somehow rose from the slush pile through editor David Remnick; as documented in Davidson’s October 1, 2002 letter to me) “read it with pleasure, and found it quite interesting,” though alas they were unable to publish it. Eventually it became my entry piece to the online journal New Works Review, where I would later serve briefly as managing editor, and where again no one commented on the issue of its naivité.

My response, in any case, to the inevitable charge, is that I was as aware as anyone that what I proposed was considerably less-than-just-unlikely to occur on any grand scale. But how much less naive is the popular notion that the way to peace is through war? How has that project worked out over the past millenia? How much safer (or more dangerous) is the world we live in than when we entered the present and apparently unending fray?

Let me turn in partial response to two more of Carey’s witnesses: “You can’t make peace using military means” (Avi Dichter); and: “The tragedy of Israel’s public security debate is that we don’t realize that we face a frustrating situation in which we win every battle, but we lose the war.” I wonder if the latter is not true of our own ongoing war against terror.

But my clearest response to that old charge, which I offer here with even less certainty than before that we will concertedly try it, is that diplomacy and honest dialogue are a more likely road to peace should we ever really get serious about reaching it. In that spirit of aspiration – and with something of Kenneth Burke’s “wan hope” (in his “Definition of Man”) that “in the sheer muddle of current international relations” there might be “enough elements of self-cancellation to keep things from coming to a perfect fulfillment in a perfect Apocalyptic holocaust” – I offer once more the following literary plea to our better nature:


Joseph and His Good Brothers

Thomas Mann, German writer

Thomas Mann, German writer

At the time of the 9/11/01 tragedy, I had been reading Thomas Mann’s four-part “mythological novel” Joseph and His Brothers. I was in the last book, in the midst of a discussion (between an experienced Joseph and his young Pharoah) that jumped out at me then as if from the present terror’s headlines; that seemed only more pertinent more than a year later in the shadow of the escalating crisis with Iraq.

Joseph and his Pharoah were discussing, among other things, matters of life and death. War and peace. The proper conduct of rulers toward an empire’s enemies. Pharoah did not want to acknowledge the realms of darkness and evil. He would have preferred to banish them from his Egyptian religion. It was by virtue of his internationalist vision, in fact, that the foreigner Joseph had risen from the depths of his imprisonment (for the matter of Potiphar’s wife) to enjoy the prestige of second-in-command to the royal Pharoah.

“Ah, how much more would things go by love and goodness if not for this belief in the lower and in the devourer with the crushing jaws! No one shall persuade Pharoah that man would not do much or consider much pleasing to do if their fate were not directed downward.”

Joseph fleeing from Potiphar's wife, Philipp Veit

Joseph fleeing from Potiphar’s wife, Philipp Veit

But Joseph, also an enemy of “violence and abruptness,” counters with an enigma. Right can also be wrong. Truth can be error. It may exist only to point toward a greater truth.

“What can be done with robber kings that burn and plunder? You cannot give them the peace of God, they are too stupid and bad. You can only bring it to them by first smiting them hip and thigh until they know that the peace of God has strong hands. But you owe it to God that things shall go on earth at least half-way according to His will and not entirely according to the will of burners and plunderers.”

But, lest his words give too much comfort to hawkish advisors, Joseph brings to war “word of the peace of God” even as to peace word of courage’s virtues. “The sword is stupid; yet I would not call meekness wise. Wise is the mediator who counsels courage in order that meekness may not be revealed as stupid in the sight of God and man.”

It occurred to me as we were zeroing in on Afghanistan, and again as (for the second time in little more than a decade) we decimated Baghdad, that the younger Joseph, who taunted his brothers with dreams that even his pious father found presumptuous, had much in common with this United States risen up, a wounded eagle, to strike back at those who had attacked it.

Joseph the Provider, fourth part of Mann's novel

Joseph the Provider, fourth part of Mann’s novel (1st edition)

How comforting to think that, despite Joseph’s obvious folly, God is once said to have turned his personal tragedy to both his and his nation’s good. As He still might turn humanity’s multifarious sinning to its redemption.

How might this redemption touch us today in our present predicament?

I am no  political or economic or deeply spiritual thinker. From where I sit, though, let me add this additional witness for the word’s eventual efficacy over the sword’s.

What if Israel, instead of more questionable negotiations (while building its own Berlin Wall between itself and any future Palestinian state), had just taken to heart Gandhi’s prediction of eye-for-eye-and-tooth-for-tooth leading at last to hopelessly blind and toothless nations? Imagine how much wind would have been taken out of international terrorism’s sails if Israel’s leaders were to have suddenly said something like this:

“Look. We are a powerful nation. And we can continue proving it. But just now we have caught a glimpse of your people’s humanity, too. Just now we are moved to tears not just for our dead but for yours as well. As a gesture of good will – not of our weakness, for we remain powerful – accept our immediate and total withdrawal from your territories. Now let us both catch our breath. Let us both reflect on the true imperatives of our religions. Then let us sit down in peace and finally resolve this old problem of Jerusalem.”

And what if our own President were to have stopped, sometime between 9/11 and this new razing of Iraq, and reflected? Imagine how much wind would have been sucked out of those terrible sails if he were suddenly to have said something wholly unscripted, like this:

“Look. With all my soul I have believed this to be the greatest nation on earth. I have believed it within our power both to destroy the evil ones and to raise up the good in many other nations. But our brothers in other nations tell us that we are too carelessly arrogant, quick to impose a will that may not be theirs. All my instincts have told me they are wrong, but maybe I am wrong, too. We are strong. We can act without them. But instead let us continue to act with them, thereby adding their strength to ours. As a gesture of good will, let us step back on this stance on Iraq – without ceasing to keep Saddaam Hussein, as is clearly necessary, in his present cage, prevented from unleashing the harm that otherwise we fear he might – let us step back until we can agree with our good brothers on what to do next. Together with those good brothers we will still prevent Saddaam Hussein from using whatever weapons of mass destruction he may possess or hope to possess. Together with those good brothers we will continue undaunted to uproot and destroy the robber kings and burners and plunderers wherever we may find them.”

Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, windmill

Impossible dreamer Don Quixote,
tilting at windmills

Yes, I know. This is silly, John-Lennonish dreaming. Wholly unfounded in political reality. But how much more pleasant, life-giving, than the usual voices of assured destruction! Really – despite our reluctant, or cosmetic, diplomacies – how earnestly have we ever explored the largely un-traveled roads to peace?

One must hope that it is not yet too late to make the attempt.


Postscript: Just as I have been working on this, I came upon a wonderful review of Mann’s great novel which should certainly be read by anyone interested in approaching it. You may read it at http://argumentativeoldgit.wordpress.com/2011/10/13/joseph-and-his-brothers-by-thomas-mann/. The author of the site has read it in the apparently supple John E. Woods translation, which I might have to try in my older age, while I read the original H. T. Lowe-Porter translation which is apparently much more intimidating than the original. Somehow its magic came through to me nonetheless.

Leslie Marmon Silko and the Gift of Perspective

Author Leslie Marmon Silko A blurb for Native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko’s 1991 epic Almanac of the Dead compares it favorably to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Indeed, having recently read her earlier novel Ceremony, I had a similar thought as I encountered the richly told episode of a sacred eagle hunt – which at the time I compared favorably to the famous fox-hunting scene in Tolstoy’s epic. Certainly, unless there is a more recent work that I don’t know about, this more recent novel is her masterpiece. And perhaps its central virtue, at this strange and terrifying political season, is its stunning rhetorical power to show us the present world through the eyes of its most disaffected and marginalized people – indigenous peoples of all the Americas and an unlikely assortment of the similarly aggrieved: a single mom coming off of a cocaine addiction and searching for a lost child; homeless Vietnam veterans both black and white; cyber- and eco-terrorists; drug and arms smugglers; humanitarian Catholic smugglers of Latin American refugees from anti-indigenous wars to the sanctuary of El Norte; to name a few.

This ability to see the world through the eyes of the Other – even that Other we find most obnoxious and, perhaps more to the point, threatening – is surely a vital skill in this time of competing absolutes and escalating (even apocalyptic) conflict; when, whether or not at the end of the day we share some of their perceptions, it might at least be helpful to know where they are coming from, to catch a glimpse of their humanity. The problem, otherwise, is that we are each always looking at the world through different lenses, informed by different prejudices and assumptions – and yes, even experiences – into intransigent and often violent and destructive postures of last resort.

Consider in this context the Republican Presidential candidate’s suggestion that the whole Israeli-Palestinian problem (which I have discussed in earlier blogs) is essentially unresolvable, that instead of trying we may as well just take a spectator’s seat and see what happens. Likewise the tendency of the principals’ in that conflict – Israelis and Palestinians both – to in their opposed struggles, as Nietzsche aptly warns us, become the monsters that they wish to destroy. Even as we exceptionalist United-States Americans, in an effort to protect ourselves from terrorists, may indeed risk becoming – as in some eyes we already seem to be! – a terrorist nation ourselves. See it imaginatively from the eyes of the child maimed (all or most of his family killed) in a drone strike on a traditional Afghan wedding, as has happened. If it were any of our wedding, imagine the hell to pay! Yet I wonder in this respect if Governor Romney thinks it treasonous speech, a crime against our own exceptionalism, to apologize for even such an accident of war? Not that President Obama, given the astronomical increase during his Administration in the number of U.S. drone attacks, might not himself be culpable.

But I digress. The focus here is on Silko’s novel, which as I commented possesses the not-always-appreciated virtue of showing exceptionalist America our world as perceived – rightly or wrongly or (more probably) a combination of the two – by the Other even among us.

Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon SilkoThe brunt of the action in Almanac of the Dead takes place in our American Southwest, with Tucson at its center, and in northern and southern Mexico. At dead center are the characters of Lecha and her sister Zeta; in particular Lecha, who has been assigned (by their plain-spoken eccentric grandmother Yoeme) to the sorting out and electronic storage of the papers of an immense book – or “almanac” – of indigenous America, with its convoluted and partial layering of history of the dead and prophecy for the living, present and future. The Indian grandmother and these twins, who are now in their sixties, originate in the Mexican state of Sonora, and the sisters are ensconced on a heavily fortified ranch outside of Tucson – at the center of a smuggling ring that has recently, under the guidance of Zeta, tended away from the smuggling of cocaine toward the more reliable profit maker which is military arms and weaponry.

But Lecha, who has just come home after a decades’-long career as a television psychic, is focused primarily on the almanac. Which emerges over the course of Silko’s novel in fits and starts and fragments.

Interspersed with all of this, and with a multitude of intense action that makes the novel quite a page turner, is a great deal of authentic history which reflects the years of intensive research that she put into the work. Particularly enlightening to me is the less than flattering view of the founding of Tucson, was built on the ill-gotten fruits of the long Apache Wars – directed at the legendary and in fact almost mythic figure of Geronimo. I came to a rich new understanding of the recent episode of the banning – by Tucson school authorities – of books from the Mexican American Studies program, which I also spoke of in an earlier blog; certainly a fair number of books exist – this one undoubtedly among them – that might seem threatening to an elite society built on a notion of white superiority (not to say “supremacy”), and that they would thus want to remain hidden: especially given continuous border tensions – and the fear of a migration of brown hordes from the South – that this novel brilliantly evokes.

But to return to the problem of point of view, and our urgent need to perceive much more than our own perceptions: one of the most sympathetic characters in this novel, it might surprise some readers to know, is the reforming cocaine-addled mother who is jarred out of her self-destructive complacency by the kidnapping (not by anyone unknown to her, it might be added) of her little child. This character, named Seese (I am not sure how to properly pronounce it), is present in the novel from its first page to almost its last, where she is still alive but shattered by a series of violent events and the realization that she will never again see that child. The point I would make about her, though – and of other stereotyped “welfare” moms (though there is no indication that she ever received a dime from the State), the vital point, I think, is to know that she, as others like her, has a personal history that (while this might not excuse her choices) has led her to the place she is; and is not oblivious to the sordidness from which she now struggles (not at all un-heroically) to arise.

This is something that I wish Governor Romney, who would stigmatize and disparage all Americans who presently struggle in their various ways, would give some thought to. It doesn’t appear that he has an accurate notion of what it’s like for people who struggle from day to day just to keep or find jobs; to keep their houses from foreclosing; to keep or acquire medical insurance; to send their kids to college; to go to college without drowning in debt for the privilege; to live a meaningful life and find a little tranquility before dying. Nor does it appear that he has considered that a person who plays by all the rules and takes personal responsibility and only takes what he has earned might somehow end up falling through ever widening cracks. Certainly not the likes of someone like Seese who might still, despite all her failings, have a right – granted by our nation’s wealth and by our supposed state of civilization – to at least shelter over her head and medical care.

As for Leslie Marmon Silko’s wonderful book, it well deserves the designation of a Native American War and Peace and will likely resonate more powerfully to today’s readers. At 763 pages it is long (so are some extremely popular books by the likes of Stephen King and J.K. Rowling) but it reads well and for the most part swiftly. Not always a pleasant or consoling read, but almost always enlightening. And which does end – at least to those willing to take a long view and cry with the world’s multitude of fellow sufferers – on a hopeful note.

Above all, to me, it is a powerful example of what Kenneth Burke calls literature’s rhetorical power to persuade to attitude. It teaches us, it is true, how not to live, but also how to live with dignity and a higher purpose. Even through the perspective of people (as if we all weren’t!) so richly and variously flawed.