Tuesday, August 31, 2004

The Association

In this short survey of Robert Conquest's Reflections on a Ravaged Century I've concentrated only on those sections of it which to me seem particularly topical now, in 2004 - the book contains a great deal of other fascinating material: for example, the analysis of the origins and the creation of the Soviet Union, and the way in which it developed into a "ghastly historical aberration" ('Into the Soviet Morass'), and the study of deterrence in the Cold War ('Missiles and Mindsets: the Cold War Continues').

In the previous post, I considered Conquest's view of contemporary European political structures, the "Europe" Idea, and the European Union, as manifestations of essentially backward-looking thinking that has little relevance to the modern world. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of his argument is his assertion, at the end of the "Europe" chapter, that "in a larger perspective, a uniting of Europe is only tolerable within a uniting of the civilized world - and eventually of the whole world." In the book's final chapter, 'A More Fruitful Unity (The Oceanic Perspective)', the author makes the case for a realignment and reorganization of the political arrangements of a Western culture that "still faces a dangerous period. The forces of peace and progress are still in disarray. Yet all attempts to produce anything like a united will among the free nations have been at best partial or local successes, often not even that."

Again, it needs to be noted that this chapter, like the rest of the book, was published some two years before the events of 9/11, and so the reader must make the necessary mental and intellectual adjustments in order to follow the thread of the argument in all its dimensions. However, the main thrust of the debate seems clear, and unaffected by the passage of time and concomitant events. Writing in 1999, the author believes that "the European Union is not proving to be the factor of strength expected by some. NATO, even at its best, is inadequate to coordinate the political will of our nations, and is anyhow too limited in geographical scope to face planetary challenges." Some kind of regrouping is called for, and may indeed by urgently required: "the very disintegration we see is producing an urge for action to create greater and more reliable forms of union."

Conquest points to a decline in "the truly international attitude" in both America and Europe, and an increase in local nationalisms - bodies such as the EU, GATT, the UN, the Commonwealth and so on are seen to be "faded, exhausted, fallen from their original promise and inspiration." For a long time, the author continues, the United States was the world's main supporter of the United Nations and its agencies, finding in them the most satisfactory outlet for the kind of internationalist idealism that made possible the reconstruction of postwar Europe and the programmes of aid to the underdeveloped world. Yet as the century wore on, it became increasingly clear that the UN was becoming hijacked by illiberal and even totalitarian forces, and there was a growing American awareness "that too strong a devotion to the United Nations encourages acceptance of majority decisions by dubious regimes of a type indefensible in principle." The treatment of the state of Israel at the hands of the international body might be taken as one glaring example of what Conquest is talking about.

Being British, Conquest likes to consider Britain's place in the postwar world, and for him, as for many Britons, the Commonwealth still has "something of the vague idealistic appeal which the idea of the United Nations has for many Americans." He sees it for what it essentially is - a loose cultural and to some extent economic association, many of whose components belong to the traditions of the West. His reflections on Britain's post-imperial development make interesting reading:

When I was young, London was still "the great city that hath a kingdom over the kings of the earth," if you want to put it that way. In the period since the British divested themselves of empire, they have stuck for one reason or another to horizons narrow not merely politically but also perhaps morally, though a European assimilation would narrow them further still. At any rate, the energy and experience of the British people now have little in the way of credible outlets in the politics of a world to which they clearly have a contribution to make.

But Britain has never been or tried to be one of the two "great powers". A former permanent head of the Foreign Office (himself a Catholic Southern Irishman) put it to me soon after the war, when Britain still held a quarter of the world, that she had never been one of the leading military powers and had always resisted aggression as part of an alliance. Nowadays even the alliances seem inadequate.

It is natural for non-Britons to think that empire, and later loss of empire, dominated British attitudes. However, empire at its highest only sporadically (and decreasingly) engaged or interested most of the population. Nor was British self-confidence, and even sense of superiority, greatly affected by the end of empire, (and internal problems were incomparably more crucial to a vast majority.) Nor had it ever been the case that the main concerns of British foreign policy were about the old empire. The Pax Britannica which covered much of the world was peripheral; the battles that engaged the whole population and threatened the survivors were fought in the surrounding seas, in the air above, and on the landmass that starts little more than twenty miles south of Dover. And it is on that front that America's greatest problems, too, have been faced - and the world's.

Nor, Conquest argues convincingly, has the Continent of Europe ceased to be a source of bureaucracy and the worship of bureaucracy, of "rejection of the Anglo-American concept of law and liberty," of protectionism, anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, and other illiberal and authoritarian tendencies. So there is no reason for Britain to become merged - as many American political figures, both Democrat and Republican, have recommended - in "what can only be described as an insular Europe."

In the search for a better alternative, Conquest's gaze turns to a grouping that would be more in keeping with the Anglo-American cultural, legal and political tradition: what he calls an "Association", comprised of the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, together with Australia and New Zealand - "and, it is to be hoped, Ireland, the nations of the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean, perhaps others." He points to the fact that within the West, it is above all the English-speaking community which has "over the centuries maintained the middle way between anarchy and despotism - a balance which has failed in most of the rest of the world. Conquest directs our attention to the fact that "in World War II those areas of Europe and Asia that were... liberated, and not turned over to a later despotism, were liberated in the European case largely by the combined arms of the United States, Britain and Canada; in the Asian case largely by the combined arms of the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

Conquest believes that in spite of all that has been said to the contrary, a "special relationship" still exists between Britain and the U.S.:

There are, indeed, misunderstandings; there are those in each country concerned to exacerbate these. But at a profounder level, the word "foreigner" is never used in Britain of an American (and, in the United States, even at the Vietnam nadir of disillusion and isolationism, Gallup polls showed Britain as the only overseas country to which a majority of Americans would still send troops for defense against "Communist-backed forces"). Meanwhile, Britons emigrate to California rather than Calabria, to Vancouver rather than Valencia.

The rest of the chapter is largely concerned with elaborating the author's vision of what the new Association would look like. The author believes, it would relieve the United States of the burden of undertaking "the enormously preponderant role in the West's foreign and military arrangements and responsibilities which has fallen to it since the war:

A unity with the other countries of the same tradition would both ease the American task and spread some of the American responsibility. Countries that have, however unintendingly, relied on the Americans, and themselves been inadequately faced with either the responsibilities or the decisions of world power, should be brought into the central processes.

In the face of such an Association, bodies of an artificial and enforced nature such as the European Union would soon find themselves marginalized and mostly irrelevant in the context of world affairs.

Above all, Conquest sees the formation and development of the new international body as a process of evolution - "not something that can be undertaken in an abstract way:

Those like H.G. Wells, who simply advocated a World State, seemed to imagine that the mere concept was so obviously demanded by progress and efficiency that intelligent people everywhere would accept it and then, in one way or another, impose it....

The struggle for a greater "Oceanic" Association would not need to imply any weakening of the ties with the less powerful European and other allies, Conquest believes. The Association would simply exist in order to strengthen the alliances between the world's democratic states - and instead of being a "solution" to the world's problems, it would be rather a direction, headed towards the goal outlined by President Kennedy in a message to Congress in 1962, when he spoke of his conviction that

Our basic goal remains the same: a peaceful world community of free and independent states - free to choose their own future and their own system, as long as it does not threaten the freedom of others.

In some future postings, I would like to examine Conquest's proposals and conclusions in the light of what has happened in the world since September 11, 2001, and consider to what degree, if any, they have been invalidated by it - my own belief is that they have not, and have on the contrary been strengthened by it, but this will take some time and effort to demonstrate.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

The "Europe" Idea

In some important respects, Conquest argues, the "Europe" Idea - in the sense of a political and economic union of the countries of the European continent - originated in the United States. Following the defeat of Germany in World War II and the collapse of most European civic and political structures, it was felt by many in the US that such a union would be easier to handle than a lot of little countries. Here, right at the outset, the US policy makers turned a willfully blind eye to the failed examples of Soviet and Yugoslav multinational federalism. This blindness extended far into the future for, as Conquest goes on to show in a more contemporary context:

...we may also note that we hear no similar insistence on the unification of the North American members of NATO, two countries far closer in tradition and language than those of "Europe"; nor is the Americo a currency to be found in Ottawa. Or again, we find the notion, held by some in Washington, that Germany should be backed because it is, or could be, the "biggest" of "united" Europe - it might just as easily (if we must think in these categories) project itself through such a Europe.

In fact, the author notes, the European Union is to an important degree "a forced creation" - forced both by the vicissitudes of Europe's own history and by the demands of a United States that has insisted on federal principle and praxis, to become an entity that is essentially redundant in the modern world, "a bloc hindering the development of world free trade, being from the global point of view a large-scale special interest (or set of special interests). And it has proved inadequate to finding a joint foreign policy with the rest of the democratic world, or even as yet within its own councils."

The central argument of the essay is, in the first place, that the European tradition, to the extent that one exists, is not confined to the "Little Europe" of the map - the "ill-defined peninsula of Eurasis", running from the Atlantic islands to the Urals. It extends far beyond those geographical limits to its "transoceanic transplants" - the Europe that is to be found in North and South America, in Australia, in Africa, and beyond. A definition of "Europe" that fails to take account of this fact is an empty and meaningless one. The second vital point is that "Europe, or European thought, has generated a wide variety of political notions; and that the linguistic, legal and administrative traditions of the countries of that part of Europe usually considered representative of its civilization are notably dissimilar."

The concept of "Europe" is usually viewed as the elaboration of a political, or politico-economic entity. Yet, Conquest asserts, it is really something different - it is an Idea, in the truly ideological sense of the word. It is an Idea related in nature and not dissimilar to the Ideas of Communism, or Nazism, or any of the other ideologies that haunted and plagued the twentieth century. In the present situation, when the old ideologies have failed, and no new ones appear to have emerged - though in the period since the book was written Europe now faces the new threat of Islamism - "Europe" "seems to emerge, in many minds, as a sort of substitute."

Conquest examines the modalities within which the Idea of Europe is set to function: he notes that "to be put into effect an Idea requires an abnormal proliferation of bureaucracy. Thought the bureaucratic trend can subsist without a sustaining Idea, it does so with weaker morale and greater vulnerability. The previous excesses of Western bureaucracy were morally justified in terms of the humanistic benefit of nationalization and etatization to the population. This is now largely abandoned; so the bureaucratic trend was left mentally unprotected. On this view, the Europe Idea played an important psychological role."

The Federationist characteristics that are an essential feature of the Europe Idea stem from two basic arguments: 1) an argument in terms of sentiment, of a supposed European feeling - "we are all Europeans now"; and 2) a "hard-headed" argument couched in terms of practical necessity: "this is the future", "this is the face of the world of tomorrow", and so on. To those who doubt the notion of a European allegiance, the author goes on to show, the proponents of Federationism advance the appeal to conscience in the aftermath of the disasters of World War II. Conquest notes that this appeal is not without its Honorable aspects. Yet what it fails to take into account, "what it missed and misses, above all, is how the feel of citizenship arises - that it cannot simply be elicited by appeals or compulsions on behalf of a supranational entity." By way of demonstration, Conquest points to all the many examples of multinational federal arrangements that have failed: the USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia are the most obvious ones, but he is also able to list the United Arab Republic, the Federation of the West Indies, and Malaysia. And he adds three more: the union of Sweden and Norway early in the 20th century, that of Austria and Hungary, and the two separate attempts to form a Central American Union.

The focus of the essay then shifts to the ideologists themselves, those who see themselves empowered or charged with the duty of inculcating the masses with the Idea. These ideologists are, of course, members of the political and financial establishment who have been imbued with the Europe Idea, figures such as, in Britain, Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke, who had been "over there" in the United States and thought what a fine thing it would be to have something similar "over here" in Europe. The concept of political unity is presented by such ideologues as an end in itself - when the matter of economic advantage is discussed, it turns out that there isn't much of that, and that this is the price that must be paid in order prevent Franco-German wars. "As Kingsley Amis once put it, the argument often amounts to saying, 'Britain will suffer economically, but at least it will lose its independence' (or vice versa)."

A further argument that is advanced by the ideologists of federalism is the presence of a European culture - somehow, it is argued, this culture, with its "aesthetic" broadening of our feeling about the human individual, can influence the civic and social life of countries. Yet, as Conquest points out:

... just as Eastern thought did not translate itself into political liberty, so the rich compost of European thought only exceptionally nourished the civic or consensual order. In fact, some of the products of the European liberation of thought were dead ends, with "dead" the operative word: too many of the humanist minds of the Continent, from Andre Chenier to Osip Mandelshtam, were victims of these fatal aberrations. At any rate, European culture cannot be enlisted on the side of the European denationalized corporate state.

The British journalist Alan Watkins once noted at a conference in Germany that "the more convinced supporters of the EEC among us - Mr David Marquand, Mr Peter Jenkins, Mr David Watt, the late John Mackintosh - could hardly order a glass of wine in German," unlike Richard Crossman, who opposed the EEC. Similarly Edward Heath's vile French in favor of the EEC ("Wee,wee,noo som tooss Yuropayong") had earlier been in marked contrast to Enoch Powell's polished French, Italian and German criticisms of it in Paris, Rome and Bonn.

Above all, the essay argues, the "Europe" Idea is divisive of the West. It is also profoundly anti-American. Conquest quotes Horst Teltschik, the former chief foreign policy adviser to Chancellor Helmut Koch, as making no bones about the matter, and saying:

It is a good thing for every superpower to have a rival of equal strength, keeping the scales in balance. The history of the last few decades shows that there are many on this planet who favour having a counter-weight to the USA or an alternative. As a European, I say that a Europe in the process of integration should take on that role.

It needs hardly to be pointed out that the "alternative" that was once the Soviet Union is now promoted by figures like Teltschik in the form of "Europe".

And, Conquest reminds us: "Wilhelm II in his day also advocated a 'United States of Europe' against America."

For as long as the concept of Europe does not include and embrace the "Europes Overseas", it will fail to unite, and will divide the true Europe. "Federal Europe cuts across the deeper unity, and does not promote its realization."

In the chapter that follows, and which I hope to discuss next, Conquest considers the possibility of "a more fruitful unity", one that goes beyond the obsolete and premature European Idea - "obsolete in the sense that physical propinquity, the cartological tidiness, on which the whole idea so largely rests is no longer as real as it might have been in the days of Sully... premature in the sense that the political cultures involved are not yet similar, or assimilable, enough for what is intended, while there are other more closely related cultures whose connection should take precedence."

In particular, Conquest considers the role and position of Britain in such a future unity.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Myths and Minds

The whole of Conquest's investigation of how and why the disastrous mental distortions of the last century arose is worthy of detailed study. But the chapter in which he outlines the ways in which totalitarian myths have influenced Western minds stands out in particular as a demonstration of past folly and as a warning for the future.

"The Great Error: Soviet Myths and Western Minds" is devoted to an analysis of "the delusive view of the Soviet phenomenon to be found in Western intellectual, or near intellectual, circles in the 1930s and to some extent again in the first postwar decade and later" - a view which, Conquest adds, "will be incredible to later students of mental aberration."

With the reservation that it would take "a small encyclopedia" to do justice to the full list of Western dupes of the Soviet Union, the author embarks on a survey of the figures who dominated this field of delusion, and the possible motivations that may have inspired them. One central concept here is that of "socialism":

The comfortable word "socialism" was...a major mind-trap. It signified for three or four generations a political and economic system free from guilt. Society, instead of private persons, would run (and was running) the Soviet economy. Or rather, since society could not do so, the state would do so and was doing so for it. In any case, the great result would be the end of "capitalism". "Socialism" was what Lenin, Stalin and their successors claimed to be practicing. They came, after all, from a section of the old Socialist movement. And by the mid-1930s capitalism, private ownership, had indeed been destroyed in the Soviet Union. And what could the noncapitalist order be but socialism? And this, or something like it, possessed the minds of many in the West for another thirty or forty years.

The ethical argument, if such it can be called, seems to run:

1) there is much injustice under capitalism:
2) socialism will end this injustice;
3) therefore anything that furthers socialism is to be supported,
4) including any amount of injustice.

Conquest shows how the Idea of socialism, which had entered many minds in the West over a couple of generations, came to be built around the concept of social justice, supposedly incarnated in the Soviet Union, even when the content of that concept had more or less ceased to exist:

There was... an unjustified mental leap between attacking the misdeeds of capitalism and accepting the Soviet Union as a model. Lincoln Steffens had been a fearless exposer of political and financial corruption in the United States. How could he go to Russia in the 1920s and say, "I have seen the future and it works," of a barely viable terror regime?

In a crucially important passage that follows, Conquest adds:

One role of the democratic media is, of course, to criticize their own governments, draw attention to the faults and failings of their own country. But when this results in a transfer of loyalties to a far worse and thoroughly inimical culture, or at least to a largely uncritical favoring of such a culture, it becomes a morbid affliction - involving, often enough, the uncritical acceptance of that culture's own standards.

He makes the point that while many Western intellectuals (and near-intellectuals) of the 1930s saw themselves as transcending their allegiance to their own country or culture in the interests of the most worthy cause of socialism and the fight against "what appeared to be a muddled and exhausted political system", they in fact merely ended up betraying their own principles. Far from transcending their roots, and attaining an abstract purity of motive, what most of these deluded people did was to ignore the very evidence that stared them in the face:

As Albert Camus pointed out of French Sovietophiles, it was not so much that they liked the Russians as that they 'heartily detested part of the French.'... Seeing themselves as independent brains, making their choices as thinking beings, they ignored their own criteria. They did not examine the multifarious evidence, already available in the 1930s, on the realities of the Communist regimes. That is to say, they were traitors to the human mind, to thought itself.

The chapter goes on to examine some of the most glaring examples of the self-deception that characterized much of "thinking opinion" in the 1920s and 1930s: the pronouncements of Hewlett Johnson, the "Red Dean" of Canterbury, of George Bernard Shaw, who, visiting the Soviet Union at the height of the Stalinist famine, reported on his return to England that he had seen "an overfed population", of H.G. Wells, who said of Stalin that he had "never met a man more candid, fair and honest", and attributed Stalin's power and ascendancy to those supposed qualities, "since no one is afraid of him and everyone trusts him." Malcolm Muggeridge, one of the few independent observers in England at the time, who also visited the Soviet Union at this period, wrote of "Quakers applauding task parades, feminists delighted at the sight of women bowed down under a hundredweight of coal, architects in ecstasies over ramshackle buildings just erected and already crumbling away." As Orwell complained: "Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles."

There follows an examination of the case of the American journalist Walter Duranty, Moscow correspondent for the New York Times, who in 1933 was in no doubt as to the actual situation in the Ukraine. The British charge d'affaires in Moscow wrote in a dispatch: "According to Mr Duranty the population of the North Caucasus and the Lower Volga had decreased in the past year by three million, and the population of the Ukraine by four to five million. The Ukraine had been bled white... Mr Duranty thinks it quite possible that as many as ten million people may have died directly from lack of food in the Soviet Union during the past year".

Yet Duranty, who received the Pulitzer Prize for "dispassionate, interpretive reporting of the news from Russia", did not only suppress the facts about the famine in his reports for his newspaper - he actually wrote that "any report of famine" was "exaggeration or malicious propaganda." His false reporting had an influence that was far-reaching and disastrous.

In the sections that follow, Conquest shows how the Sovietophiles tended to be dominated by a certain time of human being: those who claimed to be in possession of special knowledge unavailable to the "layman", "experts" in their field, who could inform ignorant Western politicians of the "true situation". This type, still prevalent today in many Western universities, where they parade as "academics", has its roots in such figures of the 1920s and 30s as the Webbs, Sidney and Beatrice, whose massive, 1,200 page tome entitled Soviet Communism: A New Civilization? (the question mark was removed in the second edition) appeared in 1937, just as the Moscow trials were reaching their climax of macabre, all-embracing terror.

I think this chapter of the book should be required reading not only for students of Russian and Soviet history and politics, but also for anyone entering on the study of European and American history of the twentieth century. Conquest's description and analysis of the way in which, during the 1930s, essentially noble and generous impulses, such as those that sought to oppose Nazism and the rise of fascism in Italy and Spain, were subverted, corrupted and channeled for pro-Soviet ends, makes chilling reading. His diagnosis of the "addiction" to Marxism that afflicted many of those who belonged to the educated classes in England, the United States, and Australia, and that led to the emergence of ideological traitors, such as the Soviet spies Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, does not sit comfortably with the modern tendency to "forget and forgive". "What," the author writes, "should be our answer to such a defense [the false defense given by the spy Anthony Blunt, that he "could not betray his friends"], whether from the Blunts or the Joyces, the Berias or the Eichamnns? I have yet to see a better answer than John Sparrow's thesis that 'their guilt's not mitigated by the fact that they believed their aim to be a good one; they must be judged ultimately by reference to the cause to which they dedicated themselves... If it seems hard to condemn a man on moral grounds for an intellectual error in the choice of ends... the answer is surely that the lie that betrays him is a lie in the soul; that the causes men dedicate themselves to... reveal the kind of person that they really are.' Blunt and Burgess and the others brought to a rotten cause a rottenness that was already in them."

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

The Ravages Of Time

I've recently been reading two books, each of which has a unique and compelling focus, about the disasters - political, social, ethical, economic, intellectual - of the last century. Both books were written and published in the final decade of the twentieth century, before the events of September 11, 2001. Both, when considered as history, tend to put those events in a certain light that is hard to escape.

The first book I read, and hope to discuss in a future posting, was Martin Gilbert's Holocaust Journey (1997), an account of a personal journey made by the British historian and a group of students to many of the sites in Western, Central and Eastern Europe that are associated with the Jewish experience during the Second World War. The second was Robert Conquest's Reflections On A Ravaged Century (1999) - an extraordinary analysis of the mental distortions that characterized, and continue to characterize, the Western civic culture, and that made possible the twin monstrosities of Nazism and Communism. It's this book that I want to discuss here - not because I think it is in any way superior to Gilbert's unforgettable account of his journey of discovery, but because its scope and its conclusions make that journey, and the stages along its way, even more accessible and moving.

In his Preface, Conquest reflects that "the main responsibility for the century's disasters lies not so much in the problems as in the solutions, not in impersonal forces but in human beings, thinking certain thoughts and as a result performing certain actions." In addition to mentioning the abysses that did in fact open, he also talks of "the abysses from which we were lucky to escape, and which still yawn."

Much of the earlier part of the book is concerned with the rise, early in the twentieth century, of Marxism-Leninism and National Socialism, and the advent of totalitarianism. Conquest points to the affinities between the two ideologies:

"...both elements looked back as well as forward, claiming the past as well as the future. Pursuing this tradition, the National Socialists' historical myths sometimes directly overlapped those of the Communists: both saw the peasant rebellions in sixteenth-century Germany as predecessors of their own revolutions. One of the leading heroes of Engels's The Peasant War in Germany, Florian Geyer, had an SS division named for him.

Totalitarian absolutisms in fact developed from revolutionary populisms. Unlike the older despotisms, the new movements required this identification with "the people", "the masses". The overwhelming claim of the collective to the individual's allegiance thus emerged as the basis not only of Communism but also of Fascism and National Socialism. Like Communism, once in power these subordinated the individual to the State, as representing the Community."

Conquest shows how Mussolini - originally a leading figure in Italian left-wing socialism, and an avowed admirer of Lenin - carried out a process of transferring the idea of mass identification with a class to that of mass identification with a nation. Both Lenin and Trotsky were in agreement when they asserted that only Mussolini could have led an Italian revolution: for Mussolini made his primary task the submergence of the individual and of relations between individuals, and the destruction of informal, non-centralized civic life. To Mussolini's concept of the nation, the Nazis added what they called Blutgefühl (literally "blood feeling"), which transformed the emotion of patriotism into a raging racialism that went beyond the barriers of civilized morality. To Mussolini's concept, the Communists, for their part, added extreme "rationalism" - "reliance on supposedly perfect theory, that transcended, in principle at least, the natural affections for country or family."

National Socialism, Conquest argues, went beyond crude racialism in its ideology:

The central message, inculcated on a massive scale in the press, in Party gatherings, in universities and schools, was the new identification of the German individual with the nation and the state, in a higher mode than that of the older society, transcendental, mystical, scientific and philosophical. If we fail to take this into account, we miss the central drive of National Socialism. And this was what constituted its mass appeal to Germans, including much of the intelligentsia.

Fascism and National Socialism had their intellectual supporters, who included the Hegelian philosopher Giovanni Gentile, and the existentialist Martin Heidegger. Conquest quotes the anti-Fascist and anti-Nazi Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, who wrote that "no modern society can dispense with a principle of legitimacy, and in a totalitarian society, this legitimacy can only be ideological. Total power and total ideology embrace each other."

Or, as Hitler said, without ideology violence could not be relied on. Nazis shared with Communists the conviction that the driving force of our society -and of all others - is power and "unappeasable strife".

Conquest notes the ease "with which people passed from Communism to what were in theory its most virulent enemies - Fascism and National Socialism. Several Italian Fascist leaders. like Bombacci, had held positions in the Comintern - as had Jacques Doriot in France. who even led a French pro-Nazi military formation on the Eastern Front in World War II."

Hitler himself was quoted as saying that Communists far more easily became Nazis than Social Democrats did: "The Reds we had beaten up became our best supporters." Conquest also draws our attention to later period in history, when the extreme left wing Red Brigade's Ulrike Meinhof said at her trial: "Auschwitz meant that six million Jews were killed, and thrown onto the waste-heap of Europe for what they were: money-Jews [Geldjuden]." He also notes that "in the Khmer revolution the Communist leaders declared that 'in Kampuchea there is one nation and one language, the Khmer language. From now on the various nationalities do not exist in Kampuchea.' The victims, such minorities as the Chams, were subject to decrees like 'The Cham mentality is abolished.'"

Casting his gaze even wider, the book's author concludes that the sentiment of nationality is not the problem - it is the Idea of the nation. He sees a terrible example of this in Yugoslavia, and particularly in Serbia, where the outburst of nationalist extremism "was not spontaneous but, on the contrary, incited in the most calculating and cynical fashion by the Milosevic regime... it was created solely from above, and the damage is only now being repaired."

In a most moving passage, Conquest lets the great Soviet Jewish writer Vasily Grossman describe how, under Bolshevism, an entire social class in Russia was transformed in the 1920s into "subhumans". Peasants who owned more than a few cows or a few acres more than their neighbours were classified and labelled as "kulaks". Bolshevik activists scoured the countryside, helping the GPU with the arrests and deportations and, Grossman adds,

" were all people who knew one another well, and knew their victims, but in carrying out their task they became crazed, stupefied...
They would threaten people with guns, as if they were under a spell, calling small children 'kulak bastards', screaming 'bloodsuckers!'...
They had sold themselves on the idea that the so-called 'kulaks' were pariahs, untouchables, vermin. They would not sit down at a 'parasite's' table; the 'kulak' child was loathsome, the young 'kulak' girl was lower than a louse. They looked on the 'kulaks' as cattle, swine, loathsome, repulsive; they had no souls; they stank' they all had venereal diseases; they were enemies of the people and exploited the labour of others... And there was no pity for them. They were not human beings; one had a hard time making out what they were - vermin, evidently."

Conquest writes: "Late in 1997 the Paris Le Monde interviewed me by phone. I was asked did I find the Holocaust 'worse' than the Stalinist crimes. I answered yes, I did, but when the interviewer asked me why, I could only answer honestly with 'I feel so.' Not a final judgment, let alone to suggest that the Holocaust was much 'worse' than the Stalinist terrors, or to decry the view of [Grossman], whose own mother was killed by the Nazis, that there is almost nothing to choose between the two systems. Still, this primary 'feeling', based indeed on knowledge, has a validity of its own. I would argue, too, that, whatever view one takes, without feeling the Holocaust one cannot feel Stalinism. The crux is nevertheless that such feelings are only acceptable when based on, or conjoined with, sound knowledge and careful thought. And, on the other side of our concern, our problems have been due not to fallacious ideas in the abstract but to the extreme, uncontrolled, emotional charge they carry."

I intend to return to my survey of this thought-provoking volume of essays in my next post to this blog. Conquest has much to say that can help us to understand the processes that are taking place in the world right now, processes that can at times seem almost incomprehensible without the kind of sound knowledge and careful thought with which he is endowed. Despite the ravages of time - or perhaps even, in a sense, because of them - his message sounds even clearer now than when the book was written.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Poetics - Conclusion

That concludes the series of translated chapters from Pia Tafdrup's Over Vandet Går Jeg - Skitse Til En Poetik, Borgen, Copenhagen,1991. I'm aware of the rough nature of some of the translation - this is a draft project, and one that I hope to be able to take further at some future stage. The book is an unusual one: there are not too many contemporary philosophical texts on poetics and the nature of poetry, and this is one of the most extensive ones I know. Tafdrup is also unusual in the Danish context, in that her work and vision encompass the whole of the European and American literary traditions - she brings a truly international perspective to the reader, and her poetry and other writings are underpinned by a philosophical mode of approach that has its roots in the work of Martin Buber. Her models are poets like Hölderlin, Mallarmé, Rilke, Celan, René Char and Nelly Sachs, who for her form what she calls "den klassiske udgangspunkt" (the classical starting-point), which makes possible "den egentlige nyskabelse" (truly new creation).

I'll hope to present some more of my translations of Pia Tafdrup's poetry in a future posting.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Poetics - VIII


Paternal authority has been distinguished by its absence during this century, which has made it possible for women to be active in new spheres. But the world of art is paradoxically saturated in myths and prejudices, with the result that creative women are still marginalised. Even when the most recent generations are studied, again and again one sees women being given a peripheral existence in relation to the ‘real’ one. It is men’s activities that emerge as respectable and valid, their experiential world that has priority in the question of an accepted public form, while women’s works are viewed by many as not inspiring.


The term ‘women’s literature’ has been used partly in order to make visible works that have been ignored, and partly in an attempt to provide women with access to a number of institutions. This was needed, but at the same time the term has become an encumbrance, as it points to a deviation from a norm. The concept is clumsy and discriminating. It makes women’s books into a subsection of literature. What one might wish is that they receive a worthy treatment, and be read and evaluated according to the same criteria that are applied to literature written by men. What one might further dream is that these problems may soon be a chapter in the past. So that the concentration can focus on the thing that matters: the works.


It is no good issuing bans on hypotaxis or any other phenomenon for one sex. It is the same words that are available, the same syntactic possibilities, the same techniques.That female and male poets sometimes use language differently is another matter. If their works are different, it is because now and then the two sexes choose to focus on different areas. The themes are important for aesthetics, but so is the point of view, the eyes that see.
Close studies alternate as a rule with narrow vision, but to zoom in on what is close is not the same as to say that the larger perspectives are absent. To assert, as some do, that details are to a special degree the domain of women, is likewise false. Proust’s work is a denial of this point of view; his works demonstrate precisely what can be attained with absorption. The posing of major problems is not in itself coincidental with artistically more successful poems. If linguistic energy is not present, the poem loses its strength. The small things can point to the larger ones, just as a stone from a mountainside consists of the same material and has the same colour and structure as the mountainside. In the individual stone is contained the whole mountainside.
The concepts of female and male aesthetics must be strongly muanced if they are to have meaning. Material and point of view give birth to their own special artistic techniques, but aesthetics is above all an individual matter. A personal staging of the script.


As much poetry written by women has revealed, the blood’s secret desires are in all probability quite identical in both sexes, but the stereotyped image still distinguishes between a female and a male sexuality, in which the woman, in spite of her seductive qualities, is perceived as the one who submits, the man as the active and acting one. As human beings are to a high degree defined by sexuality, this is one important reason why many people find it hard to ascribe the same authority to female art as to male art. Women with power and self-awareness are often destructive of men’s sexuality in our cultural latitudes. Or powerful and demanding women invite and egg on men’s aggression.
How much men’s sexual images of women mean for women’s self-comprehension, attitude and way of behaving, and for men’s perception of women outside the sexual sphere, cannot really be measured, but it is obvious that many sexual fantasies are still a barrier to the viewing of female art. Woman is not an image. She is a living being. But very few men are able to see that a woman can be passionate and a thinking individual at the same time. That she can have a wish to be the one the man dreams of, partly because she has a desire and a longing to be it, partly because she has pride and strength for it - and be in possession of a high degree of awareness. That she has the ability to abandon herself and at the same time master a staging, and that she can do other things besides be an object for man’s lust and desire. Or make him into an object for that kind of thing.That in other words she is a composite being. On the other hand, women who emancipate themselves have also been had a tendency to squander their humility. Freedom is not to make men weak. That is either tyranny or great stupidity.


The body is articulated in poetry. I can write neither without my sex nor my history. The point of view in my poems wants to reveal that a female I senses and speaks, but to relegate art created by women to an autonomous counter-world is the same as letting it degenerate into a ghetto.
The problem is of course somewhere else. In the sexual porosity and the ability to empathise with the other are all-important. In the inception of a poem receptivity is a necessity, but so without doubt are discharges associated with male sexuality. Both parts are present in the process of any poem.
One state is common to both men and women when sexuality and art are involved: the moment when integrity and personality are broken down. In sexuality, when one aproaches the animal, in art the place where the writing I is saturated and completely filled, where the I has no face.


In the poem’s inception process I am not a sexually determined being. I do not think of myself as sex in the moment of writing, there I am simply absorbed. I am bi-sexual, androgynous or hermaphroditic – which is by no means demonic, but in the poem one can see that explicitly or implicitly a female sensing subject appears. In my poems there are traces of female perfume.


In poetry the sexes are related as brother and sister.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Poetics - VII


I write for myself regardless of readers, in a process that deals with identity and continuous creation. Only later does the wish to be read arrive.


Usually when one wants to say something one addresses a specific living person, but with the poem it is different, and must be so. If while I am writing I have a particular reader in my thoughts, I limit the poem, clip its wings by instinctively speaking into the shared space which the given reader and I have already established. The addressee ought to be unknown, an abstract subject, but the dream of a possible reader imposes itself on form and composition as an implicit and necessary structure. Only when I have surrendered the poem is it aimed at anyone who may read it. For a moment, the person who takes the poem into his or her hands is the chosen one.


As a poet I address something that exists outside me, something that is greater than myself. Even if one prefers to call this something God, it does not change the poems. The most important thing is that I who do the writing do not imagine that I am the highest, that I as creator do not confuse myself with God.


It helps to have literary models. Preferably dead ones, but God is and remains the highest authority. The poems do not have the character of prayers or invocations, but are written upwards towards this thing that is greater.

Yet for another, but very important reason, I also deploy God. Since God is an absolute value, God ‘sees’ the text differently from anyone else. God will not let himself be defined, but that does not prevent us from talking to God…
As a writer I am certain of at least one thing, namely that my poems will meet with countless divergent interpretations. Not necessarily because they are complex or unclear, but because every dedication is not just about the poem itself, but also implicates whoever reads it.

The Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva said: ‘All the lessons which we derive from art, we put into it.’ She gives the following example from The Sorrows of Young Werther: One reads Werther and shoots himself, another reads Werther and, because Werther shoots himself, decides to live. One behaves like Werther, the other like Goethe. A lesson in self-destruction? A lesson in self-defence? Both. Goethe, by a certain law of that hour of his life, needed to shoot Werther, the suicidal demon of his generation needed to be incarnated precisely through Goethe’s hand…’
Is Goethe guilty for the deaths that were one consequence of the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther? He declared himself not guilty: ‘He in his profound and splendid old age, himself replied: No. Otherwise we could not dare to say even a wored for who can calculate the effect of a given word?’
Marina Tsvetayeva exculpates Goethe, and I would do the same, but the example makes one think, just as the do the consequences it can have when as a poet one does not distinguish between life and work.
Michael Strunge touched several times in his poetry on the yearning to burn together with the darkness:
I could become a shooting star
and fall to rest, fall to the ground
on some planet or other

and for a catastrophic moment exchanged poems, dreams and reality. A terrible thought that cannot evade me as I read those lines.


The poem is at once sealed and decipherable. That is why reading is infinitely different from a conversation that is carried on between two people, where it is possible to break off, correct, expand or change the subject. Reading contains both cognitive and emotional components. Nothing can be understood without putting oneself on the line. It is not just a matter of getting something out that can be ‘used’, and above all not when it is a question of poems. Beyond the cognitive aspects there is a demand that one be involved aesthetically, that one be able to listen to the emerging parameter a voice is, perceive the many intentions that take place on several levels at the same time in a poem.

Reading will as a rule be an inner phenomenon, a graceful and quite private activity that takes place very differently from person to person. In his short story ‘The Book’, Martin A. Hansen has depicted – with much pathos – how the boy Mattis reads, but makes his first encounter with world history an example of the fact that reading is an immensely individual process. Here intoxicating and impassioned: Mattis did not read like most people, reading was like a fever in him, his gaze moved over the lines like wooden clogs on the slippery ice, but the letters became small, real living creatures that scurried into his brain and scribbled and scrabbled there, so the blood moved thumping through him. And if the content was strong and gripping as in this book, then the people and actions seemed to rise out of his own inner being, as though he were creating it all himself.’
The dynamics are striking. A whole new world opens up to the boy. Later, when he lies exhausted in bed, we read: ‘Shivers ran through him. It’s fever, he thought to himself, one falls ill. It may be that one dies. But how I have read!’
There is a great difference between the identification patterns that exist when the text contains a gallery of characters, and what happens when it is poems, and other circumstances hold sway. In poetry the holding points are not the same. One can orientate oneself in the poem’s time, its landscape, its space and not least listen to the voice that is speaking.


Reading is about taking an attitude that is attentively listening, asking, interpreting and remembering, about being able to go in and out of the poem in an attempt to find models in the inner relations between the signs and to construct a meaningful whole, but the process is far from merely intellectual, it also contains receptive and sensitive levels. Reading is a constant balance between objectivity and empathy, an attempt to understand what is purely factually there, and how one perceives it oneself. The degree to which one becomes visible in the poem or aware of oneself, was once revealed to me in a dream:
in my dream
books were shiny mirrors
every single page
all words a mirror for the one who read
in any book at all
the reader saw only himself

In ‘The reader’s dream’ from White Fever, the writer is present in more than one sense, but at the same time the reader becomes aware of his own being there, conscious of his presence, which is something different from merely seeing oneself confirmed.
Sometimes the reader does not see what the poem wants, but uses a strategy that is wrong in principle and exclusively sees himself or his own purpose. Such a reading can only lead to him staring himself blind in the mirror.


A poem is no longer my property after it has been published. Once I have given it, I must be prepared for widely different approaches to it. And there are as many versions of the poem as there are readers. Sometimes readers have presented me with aspects of my poems which I myself have not been aware of, but which I have taken on board because they convinced me. They were there in a way already, without my having seen them. Feedback of that kind is rare, but I view it as an essential experience that poems I thought I knew inside out, because I myself produced them, can still surprise me. It is only when they have lain for a long time, or I have read them aloud several times, that I take possession of them, I will always be the one who sits in the background of a given poem, its crown witness, as Per Hojholt once formulated it, but it can never be my task to analyse and interpret it.


I always have the wish intact that the poem’s intentions will be perceived. Or just because reading seems to have such a problematic character, I aim at an authority that does not intervene noisily and disturbingly with its subjectivity, but can see the text as it is, namely God. God is the one who sees the poem as I would like it to be perceived.


The reader’s wish is almost always the Poet’s Heart Blood, but my poetry is not the testimony of a trembling heart. That does not mean that I am a non-person, I just want to be allowed to be the person behind the poem.
The poem can never run away from the fact that it is written by a human being, a sensing subject, but should the poem be a textual testimony or a human one, that is the question…Poems must at least contain elements of life, individual fundamental parts that work like poles of reliability in the midst of the torrent of words that is produced. A shy nightingale, singing through a summer night, could be a controllable point of departure for thoughts of the universe. As long as there is this gleam of reality, the poem can allow itself almost anything at all.
My poems qualify themselves by being my truth, i.e. they are not necessarily a truth for someone else, but many readers expect to be able to use poems as living examples in their own process of formulation.


The poem excludes no one, it is open to anyone who wants to go in. In a way, all poetry is written with reference to a ‘you’. In love the yearning moves in the direction off one who loves us, for all that we are. In poetry for one who understands all that we want.
Many of my poems speak directly to a you. In one of them appear the following quite banal lines:
reality is here
only not you

These lines may have been written with a definite person in mind. Because the other person – in this case the beloved – is not present, reality is experienced as extremely unreal. The very distance from the beloved is a condition that cannot be overcome. Only as the other can the beloved be loved, but this ‘you’ also points back at the writing subject: reality is there, but the I is not present in it, or is not in a position to take part. Or the one who is reading the poem is addressed directly. At last the I appeals to the invisible authority, God. Thus, the lines may mean: the beloved is missed. I myself am not really present. The reader is involved. And fourthly: God is not here.


It could be said that the Psalms of David, written about 3,000 years ago, overturn my point of view. If God is the highest authority, God will not only see the poem as it is, but also know it before it is written. In Psalms 139, 4-5 we read: ‘For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether. Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me.’
The first part of the quotation reveals an idea of fate and providence, while the second part expresses a present action. There is a big difference between God already knowing everything, and God being simultaneous with events. If God knows the poem before I have formulated it, God must correspondingly know ‘all things’ ending’. It is not necessarily so that God knows ‘the end’. It is no precondition of God’s almighty power. If God created Adam in his image, one must suppose that God’s image is in Adam. I cannot possibly say anything that will surprise God, because I can never come before God, but God, but God apparently manages to listen and be at the same time.
Since I myself do not know the poem until I have written it, or perhaps just because of that, it is possible to insert God as an authority, who in the last analysis is spoken to, not as the one who knows the poem in advance.


Every significant work is itself, which does not prevent it from wanting a dialogue. On the contrary. Does not art only become art when it is perceived? When the poem acquires its reader? In spite of the fact that something will remain foreign to the reader, the poem’s will is to reach the unknown mind.
Although I have my centre, there are none the less collective patterns that make themelves valid on the other side of the subjective, but if today one ceaselessly has the feeling of living separated from other people, it is because it has become so difficult to see the common structures. Perhaps in some invisible place we resemble one another more than we are separated from one another? At least we must be said to have fantasies and longings in common. And perhaps in certain happy moments there is a bridge of seconds, where there can not only be communication from one individual’s aloneness to another, but where also a process takes place.
Rarely but sometimes the unknown reader identifies himself surprisingly with the poems. A reader once said to me: ‘If I had been able to write poems, I would like to have written yours’. Something was already there in the reader, but had not been formulated before.
I cannot possibly know what a poem means for the person who reads it, but if a poem can have an effect on another person, as it had an effect on myself, when I wrote it, is there any more one could wish?


A poem cannot be received if the reader or listener is not in the mood, ready to be in the poem and at the same time let it be in him. When a picture is looked at, it is best seen from a given position, and there must be a balance between nearness and farness, if it is a question of listening to musical instruments, but the poem also demands that one take an attitude towards it. In spiritual intelligence take one’s bearings according to it, whether it is read or heard.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Poetics - V


The word ‘zone’ contains a danger within it. It is attractive and repulsive at the same time. A zone is something someone has designated as an alien region, a terrain one normally is not allowed to travel in. A closed area, an independent and limited world that is separated or liberated from the world outside.
I imagine that every human being has within them a zone, a centre that is filled with energy. This innermost zone is the place where something dangerous is at stake. One’s dealings with the zone may be very different. Some will be able to live a whole life without really coming into contact with it, others will be knocked over by its forces.


The innermost zone never allows itself to be defined, but it is not only an unconscious region, a hidden vulnerable centre or a psychic gravitation, even though it could be an infatuating thought, or rather the middle of being, thus an existential category.
As an artist one must have an especially conscious attitude to the fact that it contains material that is immobile. I can dive down into the zone with great caution, but must return as quickly as possible. There is a kernel that must be respected, material about which one must be silent, mysteries that must be allowed to remain as mysteries.
Thus the innermost zone contains something that can serve as a beginning, but must never be written through.. An artist who roams about in this zone is no better placed than African tribes who, after all the depots are emptied of food – either in panic or from sheer ignorance – starts to eat the corn that was stored away as seed corn.
The innermost zone is a complex value on consciousness, which is moreover connected with the anonymity that exists behind the deeply personal artistic striving.


The innermost zone lives by that which ought never to be spoken aloud.


In the work of driving language forward to poetry, the power may switch over into its opposite. When I demand total presence, I risk instead being destroyed by the forces I challenge. Rilke speaks of how one can contact one’s centre and either derive strength from it, which can be used to create, or expose oneself to being driven from the spot in an experience of total powerlessness. If the gaze seeks its way in and gets lost, things go wrong. Creation always contains a risk of mental splitting.
The awareness that the zone exists gives me strength to be myself. To be oneself ought to be self-evident, but that is not the way it is. It has nothing to do with spontaneity, it is a battle and therefore a great victory when it succeeds. The innermost zone is a field of forces from which the new must grow forth. The place can therefore not be protected enough. Only the awareness of the zone’s existence is of extreme importance. Carefully I can have dealings with it for time eternal.
Paul Celan is also knowledgeable about this type of topography, revealing a strange place on the map of the soul:

‘Meine Damen und Herren, ich finde etwas, das mich auch ein wenig darüber hinwegtröstet, in Ihrer Gegenwart diesen unmöglichen Weg, diesen Weg des Unmöglichen gegangen zu sein.
Ich finde das Verbindende und wie das Gedicht zur Begegnung Führende.
Ich finde etwas – wie die Sprache – Immaterielles, aber Irdisches, Terrestrisches, etwas Kreisförmiges, über die beiden Pole in sich selbst Zurückkehrendes und dabei – heiterweise – sogar die Tropen Durchkreuzendes –: ich finde… einen Meridian."

Approximately the same awareness that Rilke gives expression to in the formulation of a medial praxis, one written from the centre or ‘middle’, as one seeks for a reality that is not yet given.


The notion of a 'middle' probably has a religious origin. In the Bible it is seen unfolded in many contexts. In the work of the mystic Angelus Silesius talk of the middle takes onthe character of the soul’s union with God:


Setz dich in Mittelpunkt: so siehst du alls zugleich, Was jetzt und dann geschieht, hier und im Himmelreich.

When today in certain neo-religious movements n altered world picture manifests itself in a seeking for divine identity, it is not just a pure caricature of, for example, the internalised spiritual direction Angelus Silesius expresses, but also a loss of the Judaeo-Christian understanding of existence. All is not one, and we are not God. Poems cannot possibly be written from such a position. The story of creation is a narrative about multiplicity and separation. The innermost zone is not identical in two individuals. And above all: the zone – and the individual – are not one with God.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Poetics - IV


No one has ever agreed that language ought to exist. For that, language is needed.


The small child gurgles and rattles and chuckles, day by day using a larger part of language’s colour spectrum; the parents rejoice and the game intensifies. There is no doubt that at the outset what is involved is a pleasurable and purely aesthetic satisfaction in the non-utilitarian play with sounds. The sounds are already there, and via the adults they are regulated into the language the child will speak. The pleasure need not necessarily disappear, but a noticeable alteration takes place when the aesthetic attitude is gradually replaced by the attachment of practical importance to a process which starts irrationally, and occurs regardless of what language is to be learned.


No language can be called primitive, as it will always have a grammar and an order. And no language lacks beauty, even though that beauty may express itself in very different ways.


Language makes demands on me, it demands action. I can shape language, but it has already formed me for a long time. How many words for violence does language possess? Language is not a means to something else. No, language does something to me: ‘I am a body that language touches.’ Each time I use language, a certain retroactive energy is involved.


Rather paradoxically, I must find my individuality in a language I have taken over. My language is my condition for living.


In language one travels quite without safety equipment. Here the battle is for power, here self-worth and identity are at stake, here the strong may dominate the weak, here one can lie, edit reality at one’s discretion, manipulate, hide, block, talk without saying anything, and here art can continue to exploit every possibility or choose to set itself against the many forms of use or misuse. All dimensions are contained in language, from pure, clear speech to the most low and dirty, all the way from true statements to delusion and illusion, the innocent and the dangerous. And here one can keep silent…


Where violence begins, words have as a rule long since given up.


To produce language is among other things to procure knowledge – and thinking can only go through language, but no human being can ever be all-knowing, as knowledge does not stop anywhere.


Society has use for the body that is able to work, and is not always interested in the self-conscious body that comes to language.

In the last twenty years, in which poetry has assiduously commented on language, language has lost much of is concrete quality. How often is the mouth not an image of speech, rarely of eating - or sex connected with pleasure and orgasm, only exceptionally with propagation? And what has happened to physical work during this century? The contribution of work has not been eliminated, but immaterialised and intellectualised. On every level the tangible has retreated into the background before the intangible. Man’s association with matter is often replaced by programming, control by means of pictures on a screen, the use of apparatus or reparations. It is no longer physical labour that produces reality, but cultural patterns which have taken over this role in a hyperfunctional society, where more and more people become passive consumers of goods, ideologies and information.
The movement from industrial culture to information society has only just begun. We are faced with such altered conditions that language has scarcely created means of expression for them.


I do not own language, I borrow it. There are many of us who must share the same words, but the moment I write a poem, I make the alphabet mine.


A word is in itself no more than a word. The words that were once flesh are now events in language, pure appearance without being. In the beginning was the word, but before that darkness. Darkness and uncertainty.


‘Words are light, not because they are empty, but thanks to their eminent width,’ Løgstrup has said.


I write, drawing after me a sparkling trail: the writing –ineradicable – where ‘I’ am. I myself remain, seeing differently from before. With each book my fate moves.


>From the day I discovered a secret alphabet, a code that was mine, I gave up many earlier games, I lived differently. Both visibly and invisibly.


Individual words in themselves are not poetic, but words added to words can in the happiest instance produce poetry. It is not the world that must be poetic so that I can create poetry, but I who must be able to ascribe words a value. It is in the organisation that the transformation into art happens, in the concentration that the accumulation takes place. It is here that the designated dimension is transformed into symbol – or image-value, here the syntax unfolds – or is broken down, here new words shoot out, and new rhythms emerge with their own pattern of pressures and note-scales. In poetry tones and colours are set free, in poetry the words acquire a value beyond the every day, here musicality and the suggestive are very important qualities. Correspondingly poetry emerges for the reader first in the encounter with the poems.
Language in itself is cold, the material is cold. By material I mean the sum of all the signs I write poems with, but the material can be manipulated. It is I who make it warm and soft. Language is filled with my breathing, follows the movement of my body. Likewise, language is in itself sexless. It is only my noisy behaviour that makes it get up With its standard expressions, fixed idioms and figurative meanings language is not much different from a ruin which lays bare life’s transitoriness, time and history. A concept like ‘eternity’ is static and dead, while poetic language points to the possibility of change. Language is only language – and language should not be confused with things. I canot write with the word ‘pen’. There is no agreement between the word and the thing, very rarely does the sound connect with the object. Whether I like it or not, I have to put with the fact that a leaf is called: Leaf, a washtub: Washtub, and cream: Cream. Damn it, I wish I could have found better words for the ones I find most impossible first, the ones that lie like billowing jellyfish in one’s mouth, but a word is a word and cannot be done away with. Language has its geological layers. It contains several eras. I am not among those who hold to the idea that words have lost their value in a tragic way, or only express vague reminiscences. The original meaning may have been lost, but a new and just as valid one may have come into being. Language fluctuates. Obsolete expressions need not necessarily be reactivated, but language’s innate potential will go on developing. Thus new nuances and new entities constantly emerge. So I am not left with the last ruins of a language. I am full of verbal visions and still believe in the magic of language in poetry.


Norms are bound up with conventions, with the expected. Art involves the opposite. Here all the preconceived must be got out of the way so that something can begin. The words are already there, but the poetic dimension only reveals itself during the creative act. It is when the elements are put together that the work of art arises. It is my devices that are important. It is what I put into the words that gives them their value. A new creation and mastery is there each time.
To be a poet requires a certain amount of defiance. I cannot take everything as given, cannot take over language with its lacunae. It is my editing and instrumentalisation that decides how successful the poem will be.


‘The Plough, how fast does it go?,’ asks my son.


Language makes a distinction between the factual world and the linguistic world, but writing need not be an excise for getting out of making things.


Different languages seldom have the same word for the same object. Apart from a few instances of onomatopoeia, there is no relation that connects the sound with the word’s content. A word is not an adequate expression for reality, it is not identical with the object, is rather a symbol in relation to it. Where the letters are, everything else is missing. Language signals absence, but does not rank any lower on the scale of reality for that reason. Language constitutes a part of reality.


Even though language does not designate a reality, If I say ‘bird’, a concrete bird is absent., but the image of a bird is called forth. The idea bird appears at the arbitrary sound of the word ‘bird’. If I say ‘knife’, correspondingly a knife appears on the inner video, but not the same bird or the same knife with two different individuals. In poetry it is not the oibject but the word that is the centre. Poetry is a goal in itself. The referential function is however a constituent feature of language, which not even a poet can run away from… The problem in the critique of language is that one considers poetry in its isolated poetic function, which does not cover it, because it is art. The condition for art is that one should suspend total referentiality. For language contains degrees of referential meaning. There are poems that point very directly, and others where the words have torn themselves free in such a way that they are inwardly connected in an unusual manner. Words must have ‘five fingers on each hand’, as Sophus Claussen says. Words must be fully valid. They must have the possibility of catching hold of one another. Or they must function like a molecule model, in which the atoms each have their values and can connect with each other in widely differing structures.


Many things have never been given a name, because they are intangible. The depths of the sky and the beating of waves cannot be easily rendered precise, and yet the feeling of infinity can be written about in a network of distinctive images.
My poems try to give linguistic form to psychological and existential states or metaphysical dimensions I have not had words for previously. Each word has its own sound and its own meaning, it points to something, but when the word is freed from its referentiality it becomes capable of entering into a new totality – to re-emerge in another sphere.


There are large, abstract words in language which are particularly difficult to use in a poem: yearning, lack, pain, soul, and so on. Words of this kind cannot carry a poem, though they are deeply felt –or precisely because of this. It is the poem which in a dialectical tension should be able to carry them.


In view of the fact that its material is language and the body its instrument, the writing of poems is a strangely silent work.


Only when language attains the character of material can it be shaped.


To see language solely as a material is a reduction. Words are an independent world freed from the rest of the world. A kind of realm of freedom, a realm of sounds from which the I discovers itself as existing. Language is a highest possibility.


An animal can produce sounds that signal hunger or call to its mate, but can never name the specific. All we know is that whales sing, or dolphins communicate over long distances. Animals probably have a form of consciousness which human beings have so far managed to suppress, but it is not language in the sense in which human beings develop it. The nuances are unique in our language, and we are equipped with a very impatient instinct to exploit its many functions. Creating, dreaming and remembering.


The essence of language is also music, phonetics, metrics, atmosphere, mode. ‘Poesie ist ein Zustand der Sprache’ (Poetry is condition of language) Helmut Heissenbüttel has said. Poetry is only one way of using language, but characterises itself by a nuancing of expression. Poetry is a question of concentration, a language inside a language, where the crystals are packed closely.
Poetry is not a mystical act, but to take Helmut Heissenbüttel’s thoughts further: an anti-grammar, an anti-syntax, a strange passion, a phonetic, acoustic and rhythmic possibility, which plays a part in determining the linguistic expression. Poetry is an acrobatics of sound, an orientation in the world. Poetry is a life form. Poetry is.
Poetry builds, as Helmut Heissenbüttel stresses, on language’s figurative power, its musicality and suggestive values, but also equally as much on the side of meaning, semantics. Poetry’s density of meaning is not a wish to block interpretation, but an attempt to open up to multiplicity.


All creation also contains elements of destruction. Even though words cannot be cleared out of the way, at least the daily intercourse with language must be broken down for poetry to come out of it. Rather than something being destroyed, it is more correct to say that elements are separated from one another, so that something can be built. What falls apart are the old meanings. Deconstruction is therefore not a purely disintegrative movement in language, but is equally as much a constructive device.
Every poet will at some stage in his work experience phases of linguistic scepticism:
Language that shouts so loudly
that there is only One Leaf
to all the forests in the mountains around
A drop of the lake
whose shiny peace the body at any moment may plough up into furrows of silver.
If I want to go any further than this experience of the limitedness or insufficiency of linguistic expression, I must find language’s liberating potential. Language is the prison in which I have complete freedom to tear walls down. Linguistic scepticism is a continuous and at times cynical insistence, not a stage that is soon ‘overcome’. The border between imprisonment and dignity is sometimes surprisingly small.


Poetry is not an asylum for emotions. Every conception in language is hard work. In Rilke’s ‘Requiem für Wolf Graf von Kalckreuth’, this aspect of the poetic is unfolded:
· O alter Fluch der Dichter,
die sich beklagen, wo sie sagen sollten,
die immer urteiln über ihr Gefühl
statt es zu bilden; die noch immer meinen,
was traurig ist in ihnen oder froh,
das wussten sie und dürftens im Gedicht
bedauern oder rühmen. Wie die Kranken
gebrauchen sie die Sprache voller Wehleid,
um zu beschreiben, wo es ihnen wehtut,
statt hart sich in die Worte zu verwandeln,
wie sich der Steinmetz einer Kathedrale
verbissen umsetzt in des Steines Gleichmut.

If the poet is to transform himself into words, language must be brought beyond the place where it is put to daily use. The language of art is thus a different one from the one in which we communicate. In poetry the words must have an existence beyond their ordinary meaning, and like the logic in a bird’s wing enter into complex relations, where musical and acoustic phenomena have their equivalents with semantic values.


Syntactic accretions can give the word an unusual heaviness, but the image is the place where all original meaning disappears and a new concretion emerges. What one often overlooks is the fact that image-like effects are also attained through such devices as sound, rhythm, displacements, crossings and synchronisations. All poetry’s devices are more or less image-creating.
Images are not just thoughts, but summings-up of a different order:
associative leaps. In images elements from widely different spheres are brought together, values that are apparently contrary to one another. Here the impossible is encountered, and yet it appears obvious. Precisely because images have such a special intensity and sensuousness do they have such an alerting effect in the poem.

It is not just the individual image that is decisive: much depends on how they appear within the poem. The images must balance, sometimes in a soft and delicate dance. If the images fall too closely they lose weight, and if they point in different directions they cancel one another out instead of throwing light on one another. They are like spotlights all of which must be directed towards the poem’s idea. Does that sound like a search for harmony? No matter how experimental the work, it is of the essence of art that the work should ‘open’. Striving is beauty, in one sense or another. The images can form complex inner relationships, but they must speak inwardly, it is in their combination that the leap takes place, and a new meaning is created.


Poetry’s picture language is not necessarily a two-dimensional entity. Precisely when the metaphor becomes sculpture is a higher degree of sensuousness attained. Poetry’s plastic moments should at once be expression for thought, feeling and also contain a philosophical, existential dimension.


To leave one’s trace in language is to avail oneself of the difference of others. Poetry is birn by finding its own figure. As pollen has its pattern or a finger leaves its specific imprint. Every poem is neither more nor less than an isolated phenomenon.


Originality is a danger one should not avoid. Originality means that one is authentic, distinctive and completely oneself. Originality is not a guarantee for quality. But a courage to go one’s own way is an essential condition for growth.


It goes without saying that poetry in one sense is untranslatable. While music, dance and pictorial art allow themselves to be transported over borders, other circumstances hold sway for poetry. It is also differently disposed from the other literary genres, which can usually be translated without too much damage. But even though language most often attains its most extreme sensitivity and most refined structure in poetry, one should try to make, not real translations, but recreations.
If poetry is to be presented to a foreign public, it must of course be semantically defensible, which is something that can usually be managed, but it must also be an expressive and phonically strong poetry in the other language, which on the other hand may prove to be more problematic. Good poems can turn out awkwardly in a foreign language, and less successful poems sometimes gain in strength. A volume of selected poems in the original language will therefore not always be identical with a selection in another language.
So it is possible to recreate, but these are different poems, and remain so. It would be ideal, therefore, if the foreign language reader would not be satisfied with an echo of the real thing and instead learned a given poet’s language so as to be able to read the original version.


It is not only words that will express something. Tarkovsky and Wim Wenders both tell stories cleverly and overwhelmingly and almost without words in their works. Their films are not poems, for poems are words, but they are great poetry,


It is in the selection that condensed expressions arise. Attention to choice is all-important. But choice also affects that which consciously or unconsciously is kept silent about. Something must be left untouched. There must be a secret to return to.


As the moon’s sickle paradoxically emphasises that part of the moon which cannot be seen, every poem points to what is not said. Every time language mentions something, something else is left out. There will always be something left over. It is the body that registers that it is there, that to every poem belongs something unsaid. It is this irreducible but changeable value that constitutes the constant possibility of entering new constellations. What cannot be captured in a poem can perhaps be discovered later, and there is hardly a giddiness greater than the thought language’s unutilised resources.


To write something is to put it at a distance so as to freely be able to move somewhere else.


Poems were originally connected with song. Poems are not sung nowadays, but are bearers of music. Words roll sounds out. The poem has its position, its tone, which may alter in strength and height. Its authenticity is greatly dependent on the sound aspect, the integration of the sound figures.


Language is not just words. It breathes. It opens and closes. Is pushed forward or trickles quietly out of one human being and into another. With its dreams.
So many forms of breathing are censored. The song and the poem are the places in language where it is most freely allowed to unfold itself.


I once witnessed a poet reading his poems aloud standing on the floor with bare feet. Had I not been able to hear him, I would have been able to see from the spellbinding movements of the musculature under his skin how musical his poetry was.


A poem is more than words, it also calls forth countless physical states. The rhythmical element in particular designates the poem’s essence. It is the rhythm that above all suggests, it is rhythm that is the poem’s forward-driving power. Akin to song and dance the poem enters the reader’s or listener’s blood.


I don’t write to music, but listen my way into the poem’s own music. It is best if I can bring everything around to silence – or at least avoid listening to anything but the poem that wants to come out.


Silence is the central concept in ‘The Bridge of Seconds’. Silence is the precondition of everything, after it everything can begin. The nightingale that introduces the book is a bird which almost according to a mathematical principle ‘works’ with the pause. It is in these intervals that the most important things happen, when strictness and order in a diffe rent dimension unfold behind all the beauty.
A poem does not consist merely of words, but also of silence, the space between one letter and the next, between word and word, stanza and stanza, interstices that point to what is implied or quite simply at the empty space itself. Even the single word has a blind spot called silence. It is this silence that is an ineluctable value, what works to organise the written and make it comprehensible.


The poem speaks, listens and is silent. All at once.


If a poem is not to be drowned in its own noise, it must have a relation to silence. The silence that almost cannot be found anywhere any more, must be heard in the poem. Silence is a very relative value. Here it is silent now, because I am absorbing myself and cannot hear the distant noise, but if I lose my concentration for a moment, the sound is back again at once. There is a world beside the poem, and it is full of sounds that cannot be heard as long as the concentration lasts.


Poetic language is not just a chance to set oneself out over something, but also to set oneself open to something. The poem is a magic potential.


It is not all you see: there is more to hear.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Poetics - III


The world is subject to change: plants, animals and languages disappear. Life is dynamism and progression, and also decay or a leap into new orbits. It is a chain of phenomena, infinite and inexplicable. With its theories of relativity science has also made time into an uncertain quantity and with it all our ideas about simultaneity.
Given these perspectives, it is problematic to talk of a here and now. Just as strange as to speak of up and down, when the earth is round. The concept of here and now implies a stationary idea. None the less we experience moments in the continuous process that life is. I shall also avail myself of the current terminology and speak of a here and now. A poem can be an impact on time of this kind, and while these lines are being written, several minutes have also ‘passed’, minutes that will never return. In the same moment present is present, it turns into past. To the moment are tied not only the past, but also expectation and possibilities for the future.
Change is not necessarily tragic, and not only a condition one must put up with. It is in the changeable that the magic of life is to be found: here the experience of time is given.


The risk for the modern individual is to live more in the future than in the present, i.e. at the expense of the present and without presence, constantly on the way, without plan or with a conscious aim, instead of concentrating on the moment, which includes both past and future. To put everything into the single moment need mean neither painful loss of past nor be tantamount to giving up setting goals for oneself. What it involves is to have oneself with one. Always.


Every process has a duration in time, but in itself time is nothing. Yet there is something that unfolds time. My cells die and are replaced, I am a body in transformation. All the same, it is still me, it is my fate. The child inside me is there, the young girl, all I have been and already am, are there at the same time.


The certainty of the end, death, is decisive for every momentary action, but the past as a time dimension gives the present its special meaning.


I write in order to move, in order to be in action. Constantly on my way. But across this linearity I experience partly a circular dimension in the form of seasonal cycles, those recurring events with their almost invisible changes, and partly psychic space, which absolutely refuses to let itself be fixed in time, a kind of simultaneous presence related to the dream, in which I at once act and play the part of the observer. A universal time like this interests me at least as much as this second: 22/5/1989 10.57.57, where birds are calling and the lilacs are in full bloom.


The body ages, but language does not begin to turn sour.


I don’t connect writing merely with the ‘stopped time’ Marguerite Duras talks about. Poems are not reflections of an objective world, but new creations. Poems grasp the future before it passes. They are crystallized moments in more than one time dimension.

The poems will always be tied to my pulse at the time in which they were written, but they may be about things that are far away or quite absent.


Emotions do not last long. The memory of them does. Nostalgia is dangerous, memory vitally important.


In other cultures time is expressed very differently, e.g. there are Indian tribes that do not distinguish between past, present and future. Instead they have two grammatical forms. One for what is in a state of becoming, and one for what is complete. Not just the words but also the grammar reflect a conception of reality.


In memory time is fixed, but with memory is also associated a certainty about the end of everything. My longing moves therefore not in the direction of something that has been and will be able to happen again. Nor does it seek a utopian future, but rather that what exists should acquire meaning, while it is present, that the now should contain several time dimensions. For Kierkegaard the moment constitutes an absolute now: ‘The moment is that ambiguous place where time and eternity touch each other, and here the concept of Temporality is set, where time constantly cuts off eternity and eternity constantly pierces time.’ Borges has called the time in which God sees the whole duration in one single moment ‘the momentary eternity’. The gaze that embraces a universality is unusual, but there are moments in one’s work on poems when the horizontal and the vertical come into play at the same time.
Edmond Jabès talks of ‘eternity secreting the moment with the word’.

Time becomes visible in words while time is fleeting and therefore impossible to capture in writing. Words do not cross the lips with the same speed that the body registers, just as the seen object is only perceived when the light-rays reach us. Every perception and every communication via words is always delayed in relation to sensation. With the written word there is also associated an inertia which almost seems provocative today. To work with language is, however, to be cognizant with the fact that even before the word is spoken or set down on paper, the phenomenon may not exist any more. Something exists before language gets there. Language will always be too late with regard to sensation and will consequently belong to a time dimension different from the factual time of the senses – phenomena that do not play a role in the everyday, where one experiences a simultaneity with the flow of events.


A poem has its continuum in time and space. It lasts for the time it takes to read or hear it. It lasts for the number of heartbeats while it is being read. The unfolding in time relates to the amount of time it takes to perceive the poem, to get its individual elements to interact with one another. The time that is involved in its production is different. The process has a different continuum. The question of whether the poem’s inception is long or short has no influence on the experience of time that is associated with the reading. The finished poem is free of the time involved in the work on it. A long period of inception does not necessarily make a poem qualitatively better than one that has a short one.


In spite of all limitations the poem also constitutes a manifold quantity of time, a transcendental phenomenon. While biological life is only limited: from here and to there, I can read myself into the universe of any dead poet. I can even read a poem again and again. It is an aesthetic event each time, both because the poem renews itself with each reading, and because I myself move constantly and consequently accentuate different elements.


The poem’s now is both an unending moment and a limitation. Words and images strive for continuum, but point inexorably to ending. The poem wants the infinite, eternity, but at the same time has annihilation built into it.


Because the poem does not live by words alone, but also by silence, it is able to preserve and protect the enigmatic.


We live in the moment, but also act in relation to a historical time, just as in language we avail ourselves of a consciousness that is greater than ourselves. Each moment is both the actual and a product of the past, the always already given. This synchronous time, these echo chambers of moments are what the following lines seek to formulate:

There is not One body
but the family’s body and the depths of heaven
not One person’s isolated memory
but a kind of universal recollection
As a childbearing woman’s body
always has a knowledge
thousands of years older than herself.

This stanza goes on to say that it is not nature but language and history that express the divine.


A constituent feature of the poem is its time dimensions. Poetry does not say: seven years later she bore a son. Poetry establishes another space, that of the moment, and therefore one cannot question it from the point of view of prose. Poetry is divine present tense.


A poem has an after-time. The poem’s images form after-images and after-sounds. The sound itself is easy to remember. The mental and emotional condition that accompanied the poem when it was read may be reconstructed or may manifest itself again. Lines may turn up unexpectedly and quite unannounced hours or days later – in the same way as a dream may be surprisingly recalled by something. There is a special freedom in unfolding inwardly in after-thoughts.
There are very few poetics that deal with this after-life. I am, among other things, what I have read over time. It does not disappear, but is deposited like a spiritual sediment. Thus, what is also involved is a time dimension different from one’s own.


It is not only difficult, but downright impossible to find history’s ‘pointe’ in one’s own time, as histories are constructed contexts. A third gaze must decide what context the individual moment belongs to. Kierkegaard formulated it wisely when he said that life must be understood backwards but lived forwards.


The Zeitgeist is as a rule rather spiritless. A shared comprehensible quantity expressed at the expense of complexity. A multiplicity of events reduced to a few clear events in an attempt to freeze the flow. The Zeitgeist is a historical, political and social phenomenon, which does not mean that culture is timeless. Art collides with time, and by no means all works of art survive this collision. But there is also art which expresses both yesterday, today and tomorrow.