Monthly Archives: May 2013

Yet more ramblings on language: Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’

A couple of posts ago, while discussing e.e. cummings, I wrote about how, by imposing an artificial order upon things, language provides a means of definition – and thereby, possibly, control. In light of this thought, consider the following semi-vilanelle by Elizabeth Bishop, called “One Art”.

One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master; 
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

– Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like a disaster.

I think that the key to this poem – and indeed, what makes this an excellent poem – is found in those two parenthesised words and the exclamation mark in the last line: (Write it!). Let me explain.

The poem itself is a slow progress towards a crescendo, a gradual, modulated increase in the intensity and pain of loss: starting with the near-irrelevant loss of keys or a wasted hour, to greater, deeper and more aching losses, and ending with perhaps the most heart-rending of all, the loss of a lover. And it tells us, through its twin refrains, “the art of losing isn’t hard to master“, and various combinations of words and phrases strung together between some form of “not” and “disaster” – that loss is so fundamental and pervasive a feature of the human condition, that reconciling oneself to it, and accepting it with equanimity, is not only important, but as inevitable as loss itself.

But as all of us who have experienced loss – and all of us have – know well, it simply isn’t that easy. You cannot (indeed, perhaps you should not) reason yourself out of your response to loss, a response that is primarily instinctive, and oftentimes deeply emotional (as it should be). And even Bishop seems less than convinced about what she’s writing. It comes across powerfully in “I miss them and it wasn’t a disaster”, in the aftermath of losing a continent, with its attendant rivers, realms, cities. In the first two lines of the stanza, the attention to detail, with its accompanying sense of gravity, followed by the plaintive “I miss them” in the first half of the last line, makes the concluding “but it wasn’t a disaster” almost an afterthought, and quite unpersuasive.

This sense is sharpened as we move into the last stanza, beginning with the stress upon “even“, and then its recounting of a very direct personal experience. This is something we all know – how, in the loss of a lover, it is the loss of seemingly tiny and insignificant things, like a tone of voice, or a gesture – that, paradoxically, is the hardest to bear. Surely – surely – that is not something easy to master, something that happens often or every day. The refrain, following immediately upon that, now bears a distinct sense of the poet protesting too much. And it is in this context that the last line acquires its significance. For while at first glance, it may seem that the “Write it!“, parenthesised as it is, might be nothing more than an aside, there is nonetheless a sense of stridency and urgency to it – accentuated by the exclamation mark – that marks it out to be far more important than that. What the poet seems to be saying is that it is through writing – through the use of language – that the pain of loss can actually be mastered.

Where words leave off, music begins – so goes Heine’s famous aphorism. Many, indeed have written about how language is the imperfect tool that we use to try (and fail) to capture the essence of lived experience, a perpetual falling-short of an ungraspable reality. Words, Nietzsche’s rainbow-bridges. And this line is, in a sense, a reversal:  the pain of loss is ungraspable, and hence overwhelming, until it is written, until it is reduced to language, to a set of conventional signs. Language becomes, then, a way of setting bounds upon the boundless, of ordering the irredeemably chaotic,  of knowing the unfathomable – and thus, a way of control. And this explains the sheer urgency of the Write it! Write, because otherwise the pain of loss, with all its thousand unnameable pincers of grief, will be too much to bear. Write to define, to conceptualise, to visualise, to know, to understand, to define, to accept and to reconcile. Write to reduce to an order and a system, to a set of known words, familiar symbols, explored territory. And yet, because writing it will force you to come face-to-face with loss in its ungovernable, linguistically-unbounded state even as you yoke it with language, it is not an easy to step to take; hence, again, the urgency of Write it!

And this idea can then, I think, be projected back onto the rest of the work. The poem, as a whole, is an attempt, through writing, to come to terms with the sheer ubiquity and depth of loss in human life. The losses that lie like scattered specks of sand upon the long shores of our lives belong themselves only to the realm of experience and emotion – until subjected to the word.  So Bishop does not – as might seem at first glance, on a reading of the poem – make light of loss, or attempt to render it quotidian and irrelevant; on the contrary, she understands even something as seemingly irrelevant as losing a set of car keys (who knows what significance they might hold?) or a single hour, can nonetheless be an unspeakably profound loss. And the only way to deal with that is to write it.

It is a vision that I find compelling.

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Filed under Elizabeth Bishop, Poetry: Miscellaneous

‘We remember in order to forget’: Elias Khoury, ‘Gate of the Sun’

Sameeh would always talk about his dream of writing a book without a beginning or an end, ‘an epic’ he called it, an epic of the Palestinian people, which he’d start by recounting the details of the great expulsion of 1948. He said we didn’t know our own history and we needed to gather the stories of every village so they’d remain alive in our memories.

In a hospital in Beirut refugee camp, Yunis, an old Palestinian freedom-fighter, is dying. All accept his impending death with resignation, save for one man: his spiritual son, Dr Khaleel, who remains convinced that by telling Yunis stories about their past lives, by telling him enough stories, he can revive him, reconstruct him, almost, in words and tales. And so it begins, from the tongue of Khaleel, the ‘epic of the Palestinian people’: shifting between 1948, the formation of the PLO, the intifada, the six-day war, the Lebanese civil war, the massacre of the camps and beyond, and all the years in between; following the exiles through village, camp and battlefield, intertwining individual stories of love, loss, betrayal, heartbreak, struggle, sorrow and joy, with the violent and bloody events – the battles and the massacres – that have set their stamp upon the political map. And so, out of the ‘stories of every village’ is assembled the history the Palestinian people after the nakba, that book ‘without beginning or end.Gate of the Sun is an utterly remarkable and compelling book, in every way.

Like Ghassan Kanafani, Khoury’s writing grapples with the fundamental question: what is Palestine, the homeland, that was lost? In Returning to Haifa, Kanafani sharply contrasts two visions of the homeland: one, backward-looking, that refuses to accept 1948 as a fact, that has fixed the homeland as it was before the loss, that will only accept a return to that vision, a vision that doesn’t even exist anymore; and a forward-looking one that seeks to reclaim that which was lost, but without any preset notions of what the homeland is, or must be. With as much deftness and brilliance, Khoury highlights the same clash – present throughout the book in numerous temporary-return stories, but most specifically – in this memorable interaction between Khaleel, Yunis and the old woman, Umm Hassan, after Umm Hassan has brought back an orange-tree branch from Palestine to the Lebanese refugee camp where they all live in exile. It is an exchange that deserves to be quoted in full.

I cut an orange from the branch so that I could taste Palestine, but Umm Hassan yelled, “No! It’s not for eating, it’s Palestine.” I was ashamed of myself and hung the branch on the wall of the sitting room in my house, and when you cam to visit me and saw the mouldy fruit, you yelled, “What’s that smell?” And I told you the story and watched you explode in anger.

“You should have eaten the oranges,” you told me.

“But Umm Hassan stopped me and said they were from the homeland.”

“Umm Hassan’s senile,” you answered. “You should have eaten the oranges, because the homeland is something we have to eat, not let it eat us. We have to eat the oranges of Palestine, and we have to eat Palestine and Galilee.”

It came to me then that you were right, but the oranges were going bad. You went to the wall and pulled off the branch, and I took it from your hand and stood there confused, not knowing what to do with that bunch of decay.

“What are you going to do?” you asked.

“Bury it,” I said.

“Why bury it?” you asked.

“I’m not going to throw it away, because it’s from the homeland.”

You took the branch and threw it in the rubbish.

“What a scandal!” you said. “What are these old women’s superstitions? Before hanging the homeland up on the wall, it’d be better to knock down the wall and leave. We have to eat every orange in the world and not be afraid, because the homeland isn’t oranges. The homeland is us.”

Because Yunis knows something that Khaleel only dimly perceives: memories, if indulged in too long, can become a trap, a labyrinth from which the only way out is into more memories, to the point where memories transform themselves into lived reality. We remember to forget, says Khaleel, in a moment of deep insight. And later, he asks: ‘is memory a sickness – a strange sickness that affects a whole people? A sickness that has made you imagine things and build your entire lives on the illusions of memory?’ At other times, Khoury’s characters compare memories to swarms of ants, overwhelming in their ferocity, inevitable as a flood. And memories twist and mangle time, beyond all recognition. Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than by the predicament of the grandmother:

My grandmother’s pillow doesn’t look like a pillow any more. It’s turned into a heap of thorns. My grandmother used to stuff her pillow with flowers, saying that when she rested her head on it she felt as though she’d returned to the village, and she’d make me rest my head on it. I’d lay my head on her pillow and smell decay. I joined the fedayeen when I was nine years old to escape the flowers of El Ghabsiyyeh that my grandmother would pick at the camp’s rubbish dump. I hated the perfume of decay and ended up connecting the smell of Palestine with the smell of the pillow.

The same grandmother wears a broken watch – as though she’d killed time at her wrist?, Khaleel wonders. Time that used to exist before the nakba, where now remains only a vague, undefined, suffering limbo.

The idea of limbo, of an interminable wait, is the natural consequence of this strange cocktail of memory, loss and time. Kanafani movingly described the plight of the Palestinian people as ‘waiting by the shore for a boat that will never come.’ Waiting terrifies Khoury’s characters, not least because it has become such a staple – almost permanent feature of their lives. As Khaleel tells Yunis, in anger:

Is waiting nothing? You’re mocking me: waiting is everything. We spend our whole lives waiting, and then you say “nothing” as though you want to dismiss the whole meaning of our lives.

But with the wait, even the lifelong wait, there is the clung-to conviction that it is temporary. This is what Yunis tells Khaleel, in 1982 (Israel’s invasion of Lebanon) and in 1985 (the massacre of the camps): ‘everything is temporary‘ – even this, even exile, even the loss of the homeland, all those things that have defined and continue to define their lives. And underlying the conviction – like most convictions – is the barely-expressed terror about its actuality. But what would happen, asks Khaleel, if we were to remain in this temporary world forever?

The temporary world, the world of exile, death, defeat and loss, but also and equally, the world of the imagined homeland. Imagination, along with memory, plays a crucial role in the novel. History is imagined, Yunis tells Khaleel; an illusion to make people believe that they’ve been alive since the beginning, that they are heirs of the dead. Khaleel protests. If history is an illusion, what would it be for? What would we fight and die for? Doesn’t Palestine deserve our deaths? And the answer, of course, that gradually reveals itself through the book, is that Palestine is, like all things, imagined as well. It is imagined in the pillow, in the broken watch, in the orange branch – the homeland is us. When Khaleel enters a beautiful street in the Circassion Quarter of Beirut, he imagines the streets of Haifa, and those from the tales ‘my grandmother told me… of the city by the sea, where the streets were shaded by trees and jasmine, and there was the scent of frangipani.’ A refugee puts olives on the top of his tent and sings songs to express his nostalgia, imagining the homeland is a plantation. But the imagined Palestine is fragile, fragile because constantly under threat, constantly in need of creation, because stasis here will mean destruction. As Khaleel wonders:

Do you believe we can manufacture our country out of these ambiguous stories? And why do we have to manufacture it? People inherit their countries as they inherit their languages. Why do we, of all the world’s peoples, have to invent our country every day so everything isn’t lost and we find we’ve fallen into eternal sleep?

This invention takes place at multiple levels of symbolism and metaphor; perhaps what’s best about Gate of the Sun is that it is not, at the end, a story about events, but a story about people. At its heart lie two love affairs: Khaleel’s love for Shams, that ends in betrayal and brutal violence; and Yunis’ love for his wife Naheeleh, who lives across the border, and whom he undergoes great dangers to meet in a secret cave called Bab el-Shams (‘Gate of the Sun’); and through the story, love, longing and loss become symbols of Palestine. Every word, act and gesture is loaded with significances. Right at the beginning, Yunis tells Khaleel that if he truly loved Shams, he would have avenged her – and there seems to be a hint of self-criticism in that. We are told, later, as justification for Shams’ betrayal, that a lover must take refuge in other relationships in order to escape the incandescence of his passion. We are told, of Yunis’ own love, that ‘When she was there, he was fully there. When she was absent, he invested himself totally in waiting.‘ Immediately after recounting Yunis’ secret wanderings through Palestine, Khaleel thinks out loud: ‘No-one who hasn’t crossed a desert like the desert of Shams has meaning to his life’; before concluding, ‘Love is feeling yourself to be lost and unanchored. Love is dying because you can’t hold on to the woman you love… that’s love, master – an emptiness suddenly filled, or a fullness that empties and melts into thin air.’ So smoothly, so effortlessly, something entirely, passionately individual and personal has come to mean an entire world beyond itself; love, exile and the yearning for the homeland – like in the best of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry, they have become virtually indistinguishable.  And it’s there in the poetry that the characters quote, seemingly nothing more than fiery love poetry:

I’ll see you coming with the cloudless sky,/ disappearing through the cloudless sky,/ among the almond leaves.

In his political and social commentary, Khoury is unsparing. There is no romanticisation of intifada or revolution for him; in words strikingly similar to Milan Kundera, Khaleel castigates the revolution for leading to ‘monstrosity‘, since it allows persons to ‘enter into history, be the reader and the read at the same time.’ Artists and intellectuals are singled out for special treatment – their particular tragedy, writes Khoury in words that hit home, hard – is they must go, look – and then forget: strikingly portrayed in a scene involving a French theatre crew that, inspired by an idealised account of the glory of death in the refugee camp – has arrived to do some ‘fieldwork’ before putting on a play. As Khaleel observes drily – and savagely (albeit in a different context):

‘He was an intellectual and a writer and a journalist, and they don’t go to war or get involved; they observe death and write, thinking that they’ve experienced

Yunis himself despises the intellectuals who, visiting the fighters, ‘theorise and philosophise, and then go back to their comfortable homes‘. And nowhere is this made clearer than in the words of the lead actress of the French crew to Khaleel, who has spent part of her early years on a kibbutz, and has come to the refugee camp racked with guilt and confusion. I can’t see the victim as someone turned executioner, she says, because that would make history meaningless. Coming, as it does, on the heels of vivid accounts of massacre, war and death, this grand narrative-building, this flight into concepts and words, sounds the most absurd and meaningless thing ever – to say nothing of being disrespectful and insulting. You can’t intellectualise this, is the point, you can’t possibly make something abstract out of the Shatila Camp massacre – there is only experience and suffering.

Even Palestine itself isn’t spared. Rejecting grand narratives there as well, Khaleel locates – with savage irony and paradox, the creation of ‘Palestine’ right in the middle of – and due to – the nakba.

‘Gaza dissolved in a sea of refugees and became the first place to be collectively
Palestinian. It was there that the Palestinians discovered that they weren’t
groups of people belonging to various districts and villages, the disaster had
manufactured a single people.’

This concern with the rejection of essentialism is central to the entire style of Gate of the Sun, that takes place through so many stories told from so many different perspectives and angles, overlapping, criss-crossing, sometimes contradicting each other. It is a concern that Khaleel voices frequently.

‘I’m scared of a history that has only one version. History has dozens of versions, and for it to ossify into one leads only to death… We mustn’t see ourselves in their mirror, for they’re prisoners of one story, as though the story had abbreviated and ossified them…  Please, father – you mustn’t become just one story. Even you, even Naheeleh – please let me liberate you from from your love story, for I see you as a man who betrays and repents and loves and fears and dies. Believe me, this is the only way if we’re not to become ossified and die… You haven’t ossified into one story. You’re dying, but you’re free. Free of everything and of your story.’

Ossification, a fate worse than death. The issue is particularly poignant and urgent at present day, precisely because of the existence of a Mandated Narrative on everything that has happened in the Middle-East since 1948, with its clear, unproblematic demarcations of right and wrong, good and evil. The peril of such essentialist history is clear and present, and Gate of the Sun is an eloquent warning, expressed powerfully in Khaleel’s admission:

‘The stories are like drops of oil floating on the surface of memory. I try to link
them up but they don’t want to be linked.’

There is much that could be said about the enigmatic character of Yunis, and Naheeleh, his equally complex love; of the doomed love affair between Doctor Khaleel and Shams; of the uncompromising accounts of war, death and massacre; of the hair-raising tales of Yunis’ endless journeys through the region, to the point where the old revolutionary ‘saw his life as scattered fragments -from Palestine to Lebanon, from Lebanon to Syria, from one prison to another’; but there are things to be read and moved by, not to be described.


‘I’m standing here. The night covers me, the March rain washes me, and I tell you, ‘Master, this isn’t how stories end. No.’

I stand. The rain forms ropes that extend from the sky to the ground. My feet sink into the mud. I stretch out my hand, I grasp the ropes of the rain, and I walk and walk and walk…’


This book will stay with me for a long time.



Filed under Elias Khoury

‘We make it smaller so we can fill it with happiness’: Kanafani, ‘Palestine’s Children’

Here is another collection of short stories by Ghassan Kanafani. As the name suggests, these stories are about Palestine (the lost homeland, the occupation, the struggle and all these things at once) as seen predominantly (but by no means exclusively) through the eyes of children; childen attempting to shape their world, and themselves being shaped – and sometimes destroyed, both physically and in other ways – by a conflict that has become a background fact of existence, seemingly as eternal and immutable as nature itself.

Palestine’s Children sees Kanafani employ many of the themes – and techniques – that he normally uses to striking effect. The Slope, the opening story of the book, is similar in many ways to that profoundly disturbing novella, Men in the Sun. Here, the doomed journey across the desert is replaced by a child telling a story in class: a clearly made-up story about his father, a shoemaker, who is so engrossed in his task (attempting to earn enough money to send his children to school) that he allows himself to be suffocated to death under the fruit and nut peels thrown down upon him by the rich man’s family that resides above his workplace. The simple story, absurd and unbelievable even as fantasy (and dismissed by the headmaster as such) is of course a savage commentary upon the refusal of the Palestinian people (until the first intifada) to resist the ocupation, and carry on with their lives as though nothing had happened. It is, in fact, the absurdity of the story that drives the message home. Who wouldn’t notice fruit peels raining down upon his head? Precisely he, Kanafani seems to be saying, who wouldn’t notice being roasted to death inside a truck (Men in the Sun) – or he who doesn’t notice his country being taken from him beneath his very nose. Or he who tells a young boy, in another story, with that characteristic fatalism:

… listen, Mansur. This generation is an accursed generation. You have to know that from the beginning.’

Or in another story where every paragraph accounting episodes in the struggle is punctuated by either ‘but that is besides the point’, or ‘but that is also besides the point.’

Perhaps the most powerful series of stories in the collection track the lives of two brothers: Quassim and Mansur. Born to a Palestinian villager, the elder is educated, becomes a doctor in Haifa and is involved with a Jewish woman, while the younger joins the fidayeen. Incidenta run in parallel. Just as Mansur has left from home, without informing his father, to join an attack upon a British-held citadel, Quassim is breakfasting in Haifa:

‘Doctor Quassim looked out at the houses of Haifa stacked at the foot of Mount Carmel and the stony field stretching off towards the port. All of it was exposed to the barrel of the gun set up on the roof of the house. He didn’t quite recall the details of the story which he had read that morning about the two Arabs who had been killed by bullets from some far-off gun, or whether the incident had occurred near this very region.’

This is strongly reminiscent of Camus’ ‘Mother died today; or maybe yesterday. I don’t know.’ And indeed, Palestine, and all that it stands for, is a distant strangeness to Quassim, who appears to be more at home in an alien society. As the fighting intensifies around Acre:

When he [Quassim] raised his head, something appeared in front of him. Through the pale blue mist were the domes and rooftops of Acre. At the same time he remembered Majd al-Kurum [his home village]. It seemed distant to him, an ambiguous distance not unlike oblivion.

And in turn, to Palestinian eyes, Quassim has become a stranger. He’s a stranger to his father, when he returns home to the village for a visit, and refuses to settle there as a doctor, preferring instead to continue to advance his career in Haifa, now Israeli territory. His father reacts naturally by thinking ‘at least there’s the other one [son]‘ – and yet, like most of Kanafani’s characters, subtle, complex and multi-layered, we cannot simply dismiss Quassim as a fifth columnist or a traitor to his people. Because of his own awareness of a fractured being in a fractured land living in a fractured time, it is difficult not to sympathise with Quassim somewhat, not least because we can so easily see parts of ourselves in him. Speaking with Eva, the Jewish woman with whom he is living, Quassim is careful ‘lest the conversation approach limits which were too uncertain for him.’ But that of course requires an awareness of the uncertainty. And it also calls forth this profound insight:

‘…there are a lot of things I didn’t tell you, and a lot of things that you don’t tell me. We make our world smaller with our hands in order to force outside its limits everything that has nothing to do with us. We make it smaller so we can fill it with happiness.’

So Quassim is aware of his own escapism, aware of what motivates it, struggling between forcing oblivion upon himself and the pull of his own intelligence the other way. Isn’t that so very true of all of us as well, even though we are lucky enough not to be faced with alternatives as stark as he is, that put his moral and intellectual abdication into sharp relief?

And all this while, Mansur walks around with a gun that is far too big for him to handle, getting into all kinds of scrapes, close to death always, but somehow with that inexplicable aura of child-like indestructability (ironically enough, he reminded me of Little Gavroche. The contrast is vivid and brutal, and not simply between the quiet morning of Haifa and the hail of bullets around the citadel.

Kanafani uses a number of different techniques to convey a sense of the incommunicable: the singularity and particularity of the Palestinian experience under occupation. In The Child Goes To the Camp, for instance, we have this refrain:

‘… it was war time. Not war really, but hostilities, to be precise… a continued struggle with the enemy.’

I tell you it was a time of hostilities… you don’t know how a fighter runs between shots all day long…’

‘It was a time of hostilities. I tell you this because you don’t know. The world at that time had turned upside down. No one expected any virtue. This would have seemed too ridiculous.’

The story itself involves a bizarre set of circumstances that involve finding a five pound note in a refugee camp, and its subsequent fate – bizarre enough to be surreal. But that is the point – this time of hostilities, as the narrator repeats, has simply overturned nomos – any kind of structure or order that we are accustomed to cut up our world with; and accordingly, the creatures that inhabit it have passed beyond our judgment of their actions. Ironically – again – I was reminded strongly of Primo Levi’s account of the Lager in Auschwitz in If This Is A Man, and his repeated exhortations to the reader cautioning him against judging human action in an environment that was alien beyond comprehension. Because, as the narrator reminds us at the end, ‘It was a time of hostilities. You won’t understand.’ Because we can try to imagine, but we cannot hope to understand.

I’ve blogged earlier about Mahmoud Darwish’s poem about Gaza, and Kanafani’s own story about Gaza, here. The story Guns in the Camp takes up this theme in more detail, bringing out through fiction what Frantz Fanon makes explicit in The Wretched of the Earth: that on occasion, political violence is the only method by which a subjugated, brutalised and humiliated people can regain their humanity and agency. Guns in the Camp is about the transformation of Abu Saad from a grumpy, ill-tempered man, quarelling ‘with his own shadow’, to a warm-hearted, generous neighbour. The reason for this transformation is described, with moving pathos, by his wife:

What could Abu Saad do except lose his temper and take it out on the people and on me and on his own shadow. Abu Saad had been crushed. Crushed by the poor, crushed by the victors, crushed by the ration card, crushed under a tin roof, crushed under the domination of the country… what could he do? Saad’s going [to the military struggle] restored his spirits and that day he was a little better. He saw the camp in another way. He lifted his head and began to look around. He looked at me and he looked at his children differently. Do you understand? If you could just see him now, strutting around like a rooster. He can’t see a gun on a young man’s shoulder without moving aside and caressing it, as if it were his own gun that had been stolen and he had just now found it again.’

And indeed, at the end of the story, Umm Saad expressly compares the situation to a blooming grapevine. Fanon, I think, would have nodded in appreciation at the accuracy of the metaphor.

Symbolism is a staple feature of Kanafani’s work. I’ve written about it before, both in Returning to Haifa and Men in the Sun. Symbolism – poignant, powerful, synecdochic – little incidents and things that speak of so much more. Thus, when one of his young revolutionary fighters strays too close to an explosion, and loses his hearing, it isn’t just an unfortunate tragedy of war. No, it is another attack upon the inculcated culture of defeat that Kanafani is so concerned to undermine, as he makes this story about something far beyond the misfortune of the individual soldier, even while remaining within the confines of his own life story, the story told by his comrade to his uncomprehending uncle:

‘… for a long time he lay on his shabby bed and all that while he listened to the endless stories. Stories about old men and mothers and children. Fear and shame and lamentation. Helplessness and loss. Surrender. The uncles’ stories, about wisdom and circumstances. For four years he listened. He listened a lot, a whole lot. Inv everything he listened to, there was one truth, and that was that his sister had run away from home. She was lost. I tell you, he listened a lot, a whole lot. Inv that place filled with shame and defeat and ruin, there was nothing but an ear to hear, to listen to the echoes of words and stories and lamentation which couldn’t destroy even a single fly, couldn’t even bury one truth. His sister was gone.

Now Hamid has decided to stop listening…

And, in the midst of such expressly political fiction, Kanafani never loses his brilliance as a writer, especially, an imagist of great power. Not only are the images vivid, but they accentuate the impact of theme and content sharply. On going deaf, Hamid hears only ‘mountains of steel collapsing‘ – fitting, for a revolutionary making his life among guns and tanks. Or, for memory and forgetting:

The image of his mother fell out of his head and shattered and the pieces and splinters of it were strewn about.’

Or again:

….the words dispersed around him in the same way as a drizzling rain disperses when it encounters a powerfully gushing torrent.’

As an immediate precursor to tragedy, this particular contrast between tranquil, pastoral evening scene and what is to come is almost unbearable:

‘…he began to blow into it [the pipe] an air of injured rebuke, of an eternal lover. He might have lived in any one of the villages scattered like the still stars throughout the land.

And perhaps the most fitting image for the land of Palestine:

…the fields wandered off to the left, undulating with bloodstained green.’

Ghassan Kanafani was assassinated by a car bomb at the age of 34. By all accounts, the Palestinian national movement lost one of its great representatives and spokespersons. As a reader, I think the loss to world literature was equally irreparable.


Filed under Ghassan Kanafani, Middle-Eastern Writing, Palestine

The Greeks got it wrong: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road – I

On the Road. Kerouac’s great travel memoir. The book that came to define the Beat generation. Of hitch-hiking across the length and breadth of America without a plan, destination or money; of jazz, alcohol and sex-fueled nights, of weary, grey dawns hunting for the next meal in some decrepit old town, of never-ending car rides into blazing sunsets, of everlasting day-and-night long conversations about life, philosophy and nothing at all, behind the wheel of a car, by a railroad track, or in a dingy hotel room. Disjointed, fractured, almost incoherent at times – and yet, that is not all there is to On the Road.

The heart of the book, and indeed the key to understanding what Kerouac is trying to do with it, I think, lies in the following paragraph:

As in a dream, we were zooming back through sleeping Washington and back in the Virginia wilds, crossing the Appomattox River at daybreak, pulling up at my brother’s door at 8 AM. And all this time Dean was tremendously excited about everything he saw, everything he talked about, every detail of every moment that passed. He was out of his mind with real belief. ‘And of course now no one can tell us that there is no God. We’ve passed through all forms. You remember, Sal, when I first came to New York and I wanted Chad King to teach me about Nietzsche. You see how long ago? Everything is fine, God exists, we know time. Everything since the Greeks has been predicted wrong. You can’t make geometry and geometrical systems of thinking. It’s all this! He wrapped his finger in his fist; the car hugged the line straight and true.

This is a fascinating bit of writing, for a number of reasons, but I particularly want to focus on the emphasised lines. The reference to geometry is both intriguing and telling: ever since Pythagoras discovered that the intervals between musical notes can be expressed in numerical terms (ratios), geometry, art and beauty have been inextricably linked in Greek – and following upon them, the European – philosophical and aesthetic tradition. Harmony, balance, proportion, order – these, for Plato and Aristotle, were the fundamental determinants of beauty (Aristotle notoriously – and hilariously – said once that the male body was inherently more beautiful than the female, because it was more clearly differentiated into distinct parts, and therefore subject to the laws of proportion to a greater degree). And these ideas are seen predominantly in Greek sculpture, in the emphasis on metre in Greek lyric poetry, and of course in Greek music. The classical themes were taken up again in the Renaissance: for Leonardo da Vinci, for example – as seen here – the most ideally-proportioned, and thereby most beautiful human body (the “Vitruvian man”, taken from the Roman architect Vitruvius) was once that could – with arms and legs outstretched, fit precisely within a perfect circle and a perfect square. In other words, since the time of the Greeks, through the Enlightenment and beyond, beauty has come to be linked with a set of ideas rooted in geometry, ideas of balance, proportion and harmony.

And it is in this context that Kerouac’s comment about the Greeks becomes so meaningful. Everything since the Greeks has been predicted wrong, he says, because geometrical systems of thinking are fundamentally flawed. On the Road, then, is not just a travel memoir, a series of successive “kicks” from travel and all its accompaniments; it is Kerouac’s aesthetic manifesto that he sets up in opposition to the dominant idea of beauty-as-geometrical-harmony. This is why On the Road arrives out of nowhere and goes nowhere. That is why if you look for structure, for symmetry, for a narrative with a categorical beginning, a clear ending and internal consistency throughout, you will be disappointed. There is no method to the madness. And that is precisely the point. Beauty, Kerouac shows us, can spring out of confusion, chaos, disorder, discordance, dissonance. The kind of beauty that Kerouac is interested in is the one practiced and preached by Dean Moriarty and Carlo Marx, a fervid, fervent, wild and rarely – if ever – reflective journey of discovery that excludes nothing, has no predetermined end-point or goal, and makes itself up as it goes along.

They [Dean and Carlo] rushed down the street together, digging everything in the early way they had, which later became so much sadder and perceptive and blank. But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centrelight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ What did they call such young people in Goethe’s Germany?

The particularly interesting thing in this passage, I think, is the contrast set up at the beginning of the paragraph between Dean/Carlo then and now. They later became perceptive, he says. And what, indeed, is being perceptive but to be able to spot patterns and likenesses between seemingly disparate events, circumstances and people or, in other words, to be able to impose some scheme of order upon existence – and back we arrive upon the ideas of order, balance, harmony.

One of the important components of Kerouac’s aesthetic vision is repeated emphasis upon the absence of a goal, or a destination, a rejection of closure.

There were two young boys from Columbus, Ohio, high-school football players, chewing gum, winking, singing in the breeze, and they said they were hitch-hiking around the United States for the summer. ‘We’re going to L.A.!’ they yelled.

‘What are you going to do there?”

‘Hell, we don’t know. Who cares?’

And that, indeed, pervades the book. Much later, Dean almost echoes the sentiment word for word:

“‘Sal, we gotta go and never stop going till we get there.’

‘Where we going man?’

‘I don’t know, but we gotta go.

There is no point to Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty’s frenzied dashes across all the thousands of miles of America – but paradoxically, perhaps that is the whole point; no defined place they’re getting to but right back where they started, and nothing really to show for it. All they’re doing is “crossing and recrossing the country every year, south in the winter and north in the summer, and only because [he] had no place he could stay in without getting tired of it, and because he had nowhere to go but everywhere, keep rolling under the stars…

Indeed, not only is this the state of affairs, it seems to be an essential state of affairs if one is to actually appreciate life and the world. Kerouac makes his strongest statement to that effect when he says, shortly and bluntly: “I was having a wonderful time, and the whole world opened up before me because I had no dreams.” Dreams – dreams of something, of getting something, again, an externally created imposition upon the fabric of the world, an obstacle and a hindrance to truly experiencing it.

But, as is often the case with Kerouac, the issue is far more complicated. Having established the ideal of aimless-wandering-because-you-just-cannot-sit-still (“we were all delighted, we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move. And we moved!), he proceeds to systematically undermine it throughout the book. Even in the Dean-Sal dialogue quoted above, it begins with Dean saying ‘till we get there.’ (but then, there exists a ‘there’) There is a slip, at one point, where Sal tells two of his traveling companions, “I hope you get to where you’re going, and find happiness there.” A bigger slip, later, when he tells Dean and Marylou that he’d like to find a girl he can marry and have his soul grow old with, because all the ‘franticness and jumping’ can’t go on forever, because ‘we’ve got to go someplace, find something.” But perhaps most interesting is his response to Carlo Marx’s question, “there’s one last thing I want to know“, Sal comes up with this striking response:

That last thing is what you can’t get, Carlo. Nobody can get to that last thing. We keep on living in the hopes of catching it once for all.

This is a familiar theme. It is Aeneas’ ever-receding shore that flees from him even as he struggles towards it so that he can find a home at last; it is Byron lamenting man’s ability to conceive of a perfection that he knows he can never achieve; it is Shelley’s vision, “forever sought, forever lost“. And in the context of On the Road, it suggests that there is, after all, some purpose, some reason behind all that wandering (other than the inability to sit still), something that Sal and his friends are seeking for, searching for through the wandering – yet not are they unable to even know what it is, what they do know is that they will never find it. It would be simplistic, I think, to label what they’re looking for as truth, perfection, beauty, or even some variant of gnothi seuton because it isn’t something that a word or a term can capture. And Kerouac is perhaps at his eloquent best when he does have a shot at describing – or not describing – this strange sense of longing:

“… and the whole thing was hopeless, besides which Lucille would never understand me because I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop. This is the night, what it does to you. I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.

And this, I think, is the tension that lies at the heart of On the Road: there is the mad, unbounded, unreflexive exuberance of Dean Moriarty zipping his way through the roads of America that exists in itself and for itself, nothing more, that needs neither apology nor justification, that is, indeed, the only way to drink life to the lees; and yet, there is the realisation that something impels this mad dash, something that “our broken civilisation” cannot provide, which is why we take to the road in the first place – only to find that no matter how hard or long we chase, it remains as elusive and out of reach as it was before we set out.

(to be contd.)


Filed under Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac

An Addendum to Nietzsche and language: The Poetry of e.e. cummings

One impression that I get from Nietzsche’s writings on language – previously rambled about here – is not only that language is a perpetually incomplete striving-towards an richer, deeper unnamed reality (“rainbow-bridges”), but also that it is an attempt to impose an artificial sense of order, structure and form upon something that perennially resists classification and taxonomy, an attempt to bind, to limit, to chart the boundaries of, to identify and define (and so, perhaps, control?) something that, by its very nature, is free of any such human constraints. The two points are similar and linked, and are also in some way connected to (my interpretation of) the upshot of Auden’s own musings on the point – the deceptively simple conclusion that some things can only be experienced – and nothing more.

I think that through the following poem, e.e. cummings makes this point rather well:

since feeling is first

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

Different parts of this poem are memorable and striking for different reasons, but focusing in particular on the first stanza, and upon the emphasised lines: when cummings says that “feeling is first“, I think he means two things by the word “first”: not only “first” in the sense of chronological priority (that is, feeling comes before we attempt to find the words, or the language, to express it), but also in the sense of normative priority, that is, feeling is in some way superior to (richer? deeper?) or takes precedence over, expression of that feeling. And so, attention to syntax, the way of constructing sentences in language, is tantamount to degrading or trivialising feeling by trying to pigeonhole it into constructed categories and labels; perhaps, diluting its intensity by imposing an artificial order upon it, by forcing it to conform to established limits and definitions. Don’t describe. Just kiss.

I think that this idea permeates much of cummings’ aesthetic vision. Out of the many poems to choose from – because I am always a sucker for impassioned love poems – consider this:

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                      i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

It isn’t as explicit as the opening stanza of “since feeling is first”, but I think that the same idea is at play here: cummings’ eschewal of formal metre and structure, of a coherent expression of feeling, and even, at times, of grammar – stems out of (or so I’d like to believe) an aesthetic conviction that you cannot impose order upon love.

There are similarities between cummings and the fractured verse employed by the first wave modernist poets, in particular T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. But I think, also, that there is an important difference: the fractured verse of Prufrock, for instance (at least I understand it), is designed to capture accurately through the use of the disjointed form – the disjointed thoughts of Prufrock as well as the disjointedness of life in the 20th century. cummings’ cut-up form and broken verse, on the other hand, are employed in the service of a specific aesthetic vision that rejects ordinary language’s attempts to capture beauty because of its imposition of artificial form and structure – and indeed, seeks for that beauty by an attempt to directly transcribe the feelings in question, without any form of constraint.

I recognise, of course, that the difference between the two schools is far more fluid than the above, schematic distinction seems to suggest. But I think that there is a difference, and that cummings’ poetry is very interesting to engage with, keeping in mind that he has a specific idea of beauty, and about how and where to find it.


Filed under e.e. cummings, Nietzsche

Ted Hughes, Prosopoeia and Impressionism

In my last post, I wrote about how Kerouac’s technique of repeatedly juxtaposing adjectives and nouns that aren’t expected to go together achieves a very singular and striking effect. Consider now this poem by Ted Hughes:


This house has been far out at sea all night,
The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills,
Winds stampeding the fields under the window
Floundering black astride and blinding wet

Till day rose; then under an orange sky
The hills had new places, and wind wielded
Blade-light, luminous black and emerald,
Flexing like the lens of a mad eye.

At noon I scaled along the house-side as far as
The coal-house door. Once I looked up –
Through the brunt wind that dented the balls of my eyes
The tent of the hills drummed and strained its guyrope,

The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace,
At any second to bang and vanish with a flap;
The wind flung a magpie away and a black-
Back gull bent like an iron bar slowly. The house

Rang like some fine green goblet in the note
That any second would shatter it. Now deep
In chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip
Our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought,

Or each other. We watch the fire blazing,
And feel the roots of the house move, but sit on,
Seeing the window tremble to come in,
Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons.

The woods crash. The hills boom. The winds stampede. The hills – again – flap like tents in the breeze. And the fields quiver. Notice that there are two things at work here: the first is a technique called prosopoeiawhich entails investing inanimate objects with animate properties. But personification of this sort is a common enough trope in poetry; I think what is more interesting is the manner in which it is done. It is much like Kerouac (although here, of course, the combination is between verb and noun, not adjective and noun) – there is a sense of displacement and defamiliarisation in Hughes’ combinations. We often read about how strong wind blowing through the leaves of the forest gives the sense of a large beast crashing through the undergrowth, but do the woods themselves crash? Again, it is the hurricane that, blowing among the hills and the valleys, booms – but do the hills boom? And the wind itself does lots of things, but whoever imagined a wind stampeding like a herd of elephants or bison – that, indeed, is precisely the opposite of what we imagine wind to be. And yet, the sense-images work, because while they aren’t quotidian, we can nonetheless easily imagine, with some degree of effort, woods crashing, hills booming and wind stampeding. Novelty combines with recognition, then, to create – like Kerouac – a singular and powerful impact.

I also wrote about how Kerouac’s spontaneous prose bears some resemblance to impressionist paintings, that seek to depict a scene as it is experienced (and not just seen) by a combination of the senses. Hughes, I think, uses a very different technique – that is, unfamiliar images through the unexpected word-combinations described above – to achieve largely the same result. So, for instance, mountains don’t flap like tents and fields don’t quiver – in fact, flapping and quivering go entirely against the seeming solidity and immovability of the mountains, and the stability and permanence of a field. But Hughes is trying precisely to capture how we might experience hills and meadows on a specially windy day, how it might actually feel as though the hills and the fields have been cast off their moorings, and are now being buffeted by the storm. Much like, for instance, this painting captures water, or this one captures snow, it’s not about painting the picture as it is seen perfectly, but by expressing how all the senses respond to it. And within this framework, we can easily understand hills swinging and meadows quivering.

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Filed under Ted Hughes, Uncategorized