“This cornucopia of literature provides hope” –February 18, 2003

Every season brings welcome tidings of the largesse that I am soon to benefit from by way of books sent to me by book publishers. Mostly this comes in the form of catalogues. Occasionally cleverly or handsomely designed, this cornucopia of literature provides hope, at least in the short term, of an interesting and radiant future. This Spring (it’s already Spring /Summer) has not been much different. Many good books, some by accomplished authors, some by lucky novices who have managed to win the publisher’s lottery, will be on their way to me.

One catalogue, in particular, stopped me in my tracks. The New Press, that honorable house that Andre Schiffrin founded in 1990 after he was somewhat unceremoniously ousted from his sinecure at Pantheon Books, featured on its cover a harrowing—and to me a physically nauseating photograph (not credited) of the "prisoners" being held at Guantanamo (ironies abound; this is the military base we refuse to relinquish to Cuba, the sovereign nation it is part of—instead choosing to pay some paltry rental fee, the check for which Fidel Castro has never cashed in over forty years). Here are the details: a group of about ten kneeling, shackled men in orange jump suits, wearing orange knit caps, gloves, goggles, noise muffs over their ears and masks over their mouths in a chain-linked compound with barbed wire on the top of the fences.

I am going to forego the litany of images of atrocities that I am familiar with—from Nazi concentration camps to post-gassing Kurdistan—this photograph of what I assumed were human beings in the custody of the United States government sickened me. In an infosphere rife with American exceptionalism, I ought not have expected that the functionaries of the government would also be excepted from the cruel demands of the so-called war on terrorism. But that is what I expected. I don’t hold the US government—whose foreign policy I have been pathologically critical of since I was introduced to it in my studies and in my life—to be worse than other imperial regimes, but I have never been able to accept perpetrating what we condemn in others.

Now that the war drums are beating relentlessly, so much so that even I, sequestered here in front of my computer, in a well-heated abode with ample supplies in the larder and the television disconnected since August, am subject to their dull pounding. I am discouraged by the public discourse and the rush (I think any sequence that heads toward armed aggression is too fast) to war and the savagery (both manifest and latent) on all sides. I was reading Imre Kertesz’s Nobel Lecture:

… suddenly came to the realization that there exists only one reality, and that is me, my own life, this fragile gift bestowed for an uncertain time, which had been seized, expropriated by alien forces, and circumscribed, marked up, branded — and which I had to take back from "History," this dreadful Moloch, because it was mine and mine alone, and I had to manage it accordingly.

In truth I believe (based on what?) that Saddam Hussein is a war criminal and that humanity would be well served by his incarceration at Spandau or some such penal institution. And yet I am not prepared to accept the path and policies of the current administration in prosecuting a war. President Bush and his coterie approach governance as if it were both the marketing of beer and the proselytizing of their rabid and zealous view of the world. A view I certainly do not share. In fact, I rather see it in a way that Kurt Vonnegut recently stated:

What has allowed so many PPs [psychopathic personalities] to rise so high in corporations, and now in government, is that they are so decisive. Unlike normal people, they are never filled with doubts, for the simple reason that they cannot care what happens next. Simply can’t. Do this! Do that! Mobilize the reserves! Privatize the public schools! Attack Iraq! Cut health care! Tap everybody’s telephone! Cut taxes on the rich! Build a trillion-dollar missile shield! Fuck habeas corpus and the Sierra Club and In These Times, and kiss my ass!

Where (presuming some vestigial sense of connection to the body politic/real world) does this leave me? Disengagement is not a real option (I believe the word ‘idiot’ has its origin as a description of the politically uninvolved). At this moment, I have no answer. I do have these thoughts by Kertesz:

I have related this intense moment as I (had) experienced it. The source from which it sprang, like a vision, seemed somewhere outside of me, not in me. Every artist is familiar with such moments. At one time they were called sudden inspirations. Still, I wouldn’t classify the experience as an artistic revelation, but rather as an existential self-discovery. What I gained from it was not my art—its tools would not be mine for some time—but my life, which I had almost lost. The experience was about solitude, a more difficult life, and the things I have already mentioned—the need to step out of the mesmerizing crowd, out of History, which renders you faceless and fateless.

I expect, all hysteria aside, these will not be my last thoughts on this matter…

prisoners at guantanamo

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