Category: Ethics

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Willis and Tony Barnstone, Poets, Scholars, Translators, and Artists


Willis and Tony Barnstone

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Willis and Tony Barnstone, Poets, Scholars, Translators, and Artists

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Click here to read Willis Barnstone’s poems Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

Click here to read Tony Barnstone’s poems in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: Let’s begin with a question for Willis: You’ve met and worked with many renowned persons of our time. In 1981, you conducted a lengthy interview with Jorge Luis Borges, where he says: “Personally, I suppose all writers are writing the same book over and over again. But I suspect that every generation rewrites, with very slight variations, what the other generations wrote. I don’t think a man can do much by himself, since after all, he has to use a language, and that language is a tradition. Of course he may change that tradition, but at the same time that tradition takes for granted all that came before it.” In your view, have today’s writers changed literary traditions for better or worse?

WB: You ask me about today’s writers. I have to say that I’m quite old-fashioned. I mean, for me, Hart Crane is a modern poet; in part because I find so much modern poetry to be stunt poetry, meaning it’s an exhibition, and it really doesn’t depend upon language as it depends upon circus, which is fine, but it doesn’t interest me too much. I’d rather read Sappho or Homer.

DG: That’s interesting. Those are strong traditions. So, in your view, modern writers haven’t exactly taken advantage of this tradition in the best possible way?

WB: Well, no, not all writers, but many of the most popular ones. I mean, today, I had a long conversation with my friend Khaled Mattawa, who was my student at Indiana university, and I got his first book published, and he feels the same as I do—that people tend to be on the illiterate side. They don’t read Sappho—if they’ve ever heard of her. I’m a kind of pedant. You know, I don’t mind being pedantic.

DG: Let’s talk about that and about Borges perhaps. You met him in 1968 in New York and the two of you went on to have a long friendship, in which you discussed this literary tradition—

WB: I spent a year in Argentina or so, and I lived exactly across the street from him. I brought him three times to Indiana to give talks. I went around the USA with him. We had a fun thing. When we got to New York, one of the questions from the audience was: “Mr. Borges, you know so many things. When will we ever finish the East Side Highway?” And he said to me: “What’s that woman talking about?”

TB: I remember when Borges was in Indiana, he was on stage, and someone from the audience asked him: “Mr. Borges, I wonder, was there ever a woman who for you was the quintessence of all womanhood, who was your Muse?” And he said: “Yes, in truth there was, but the strange thing is, she kept on changing her face.”

WB: I remember: “She kept changing her face and name.”

TB: And name, yeah.


Jorge Luis Borges with Willis Barnstone

DG: That’s a wonderful story.

WB: Borges also had this theory: He said that Charlie Chaplin was an outsider and had a very distinct view on humor, because he was a Jew, and Jews are on the outside of things, and, therefore, can laugh. Well, the fact is that Charlie Chaplin married two Jews, but he was from a Catholic family—he was self-educated, and brilliant, of course. As an acrobat, he was a master. He wrote the music, everything. But it wasn’t because he was Jewish, it was because he was Charlie Chaplin.

DG: Certainly, dual identities, and navigating that is certainly a tough task—

WB: I think you’re like Borges. You know so many languages—it’s popping out of your ears.

DG: English is my third language. It’s my native language, but it’s not my first one.

WB: It’s good to have a native language. We’re not happy without one, but the problem is when you’re like us—in what language do you dream? For years, I dreamed in Chinese, but always with a dictionary in my hand.

TB: One of my great anxiety dreams is I have to speak Chinese, and often what will happen is that it’ll come out in Chinese and when I forget the words, I’ll switch over to Spanish or Greek—in my dream—and then it’ll be so confusing, I’ll wake myself up.

WB: Tony was very good in Chinese, especially when it came to legalistic stuff, things like how much we have to pay for a room, because everybody was trying to cheat us, alas.

TB: The thing is that we were given special treatment as scholars from the West, as Fulbright Scholars. They gave us “Friends of China” status, which meant that we had what’s called the “white card,” and with a white card you could get Chinese prices as compared to Western prices—which meant sometimes the difference could be—

WB: Almost twice as much.

TB: Could be, yeah, sometimes the difference of a thousand percent in the price. And so, you would go to an expensive hotel and ask for the Chinese price, and first they’d say: “We’ll get you into a room.” But when you showed them the white card, they’d say: “Oh, I’m sorry, we’ve just filled up.” And then you’d have to argue. Just to have a place to stay the night. This is a long time ago.

DG: These are idiosyncrasies and peculiarities you can’t read about in books. You can only get them through stories. Let’s shift gears a little and talk about your recent work, Willis, Poets of the Bible: From Solomon’s Song of Songs to John’s Revelation, published in 2017. In the foreword, you wrote: “Bible speech is our atlas and guide to language, literature, and philosophy. The great voices in Genesis, Solomon, Job, and Psalms, and Gospels, Paul, and Revelation keep the biblical fountain flowing with magnificent speech. It continues in contemporary poetry from T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas to Joan Baez, John Lennon, Theodore Roethke, and C.K. Williams.” Would you say that declining religiosity might produce poorer literatures, or do you see faith and religious texts as independent things?

WB: Well, I think religiosity is a pejorative word. No, I don’t think that religion helps or hurts. It depends on who you are. If you’re good, you’re good. It doesn’t matter whether you are Catullus, or secular, or Sappho, who certainly was secular. If you’re good, you’re good, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re writing in Provencal, Italian, English, French, or Inuit language—whatever they write in. I say “whatever” because every twenty miles, it’s slightly different.

TB: Another way of thinking about it is that declining religiosity, or the undermining of the church because of Darwin and science, and so on—without that, you wouldn’t have the essential crises of morality, consciousness, and spirituality that gives us “The Waste Land,” or the terrible sonnets of Hopkins, for example, or the great poems of Matthew Arnold. My point is that the sea change caused even religious people to doubt their own religions, like T.S. Eliot did his childhood Unitarianism. So he converted to a conservative Anglicanism, with some forays into Indian Vedic Literature—The Upanishads, and so on—exploring world spirituality as options to a childhood religiosity, and that transition gave his work an arc, from the early poems of Prufrock, all the way through the Four Quartets. His example shows us the decline of faith, but also the reassertion of a certain necessity for faith in the end.

DG: That’s interesting because it’s this kind of difficulty—the crisis of the modern that makes a lot of this modern poetry possible. It ties in with what Willis said—this idea that it’s about who you are and not the religion itself. And so I’d like use this as a jumping off point: You’ve lived and worked in different parts of the world, and this exposed you to ideas and customs in a direct, tangible way. At the same time, you’re also a man of letters, having studied at the most prestigious institutions such Yale and Bowdoin College. You’ve seen the world through books and travel—the wisdom of experience and the tangible truth of the page. What’s a place and book that made a particularly strong impression on you?

WB: Well, I think the person who influenced me maybe most is Sappho, and she writes in a dialect of Greek—Aeolic Greek, which isn’t that different, if you learn a few consonantal changes. About religion, I think it’s probably done nine-tenths harm and one-tenth good, in terms of painting for example. Except in Greece, where you have the sculpture of Antiquity, which is infinitely beautiful. They rescued so much of it there when they had the 2004 Olympics, because they went underground, and all they found was marble statues. I think if you go to every great museum, about eighty percent of the pictures are religious, until you get into the middle of the 19th century, and it’s so repetitious, but also sometimes marvelous. Most of the time it’s not. And so, I don’t think religion in that sense has helped diversify the stories we can tell.

DG: Indeed, when something follows essentially the same formula, one can get overwhelmed by it.

WB: Much of it is New Testament, and I did a translation of the New Testament. It’s a two-thousand-page book attacking the outsider. And I could go into this at great length. I have lots of essays on it. I wish it were a good book, but Jesus does too much punishing.

DG: That has to be admitted. It’s like that. There’s very little of what you can do and a lot of what you can’t.

WB: Exactly, exactly.

DG: Let’s go back to you, Tony. I would like to ask you about your creative process. Your literary approach is multifaceted, in the sense that you prefer to blend various kinds of media with the written word. With Alexandra Eldridge, for example, you released The Radiant Tarot: Pathway to Creativity. You also wrote a collection of poems, of War From Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki, which later evolved into Tokyo Burning, an album of songs with John Clinebell and Ariana Hall, part of a duo called Genuine Brandish. Along with a discussion of these projects, what are other ways you’ve mixed literature with different arts, and do you prefer to start with the written word or to draw inspiration from another art form?

TB: The Radiant Tarot came about because I had the idea—what would it be like to publish a book of poems that was actually a deck of cards? A book that didn’t have a page order—a page numbering. You could shuffle the poems, and pull them out, like you might deal cards from a deck. I had the idea it might be interesting—it’s a bit like Rayuela or Hopscotch, the great novel by Julio Cortazar—to choose your own story. Or “The Garden of Bifurcating Paths” by Borges—the idea that you can find your own path through the story, and time, and the universe. And partly I was inspired by “The Waste Land,” where Tarot cards appear. You can think about the different scenes or different voices of “The Waste Land,” many of which could go back to Madam Sosotris’s reading of the cards, the drowning man, and so on, like cards. In this way, “The Waste Land” itself is a kind of shuffled deck, and a lot of that modernist collage from Paterson to The Cantos to The Sound and the Fury, or Ulysses, has that shuffled card effect. That was my interest. Then it slowly evolved, and it ended up being a Tarot deck, not a book of poems. I wrote the book that accompanied a Tarot deck. My friend Alexandra Eldridge made the wonderful art, and it turned into a twelve year journey together—about fifteen years since I started it—in which I delved into the history, philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience of creativity. So it becomes a Tarot of creativity—a Tarot which tries to get at what makes us creative. And what is the creative process? Without going into much detail, if you think about the four Tarot suits (which have evolved into spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs in the common deck of cards) the Wands, the Pentacles, the Swords, and the Cups are each associated with different mental acts, so that the cups are meditation and dreaming, the prewriting process, and the striking of inspiration, the charging forward, the fire of the creative process is the Wands. The process of revision and cutting back and rationality is the Swords, and the process of giving it all structure and grounding is the Pentacles. So I ended up making this Tarot, which is really for everybody, but especially for creative people. For every card I’ve created a creative prompt—a game, an act, or a journey you could apply to your life. They’re not all about sitting down and writing a poem, or making art. It’s really more about taking the ideas of the card, applying them creatively to your life, with the idea that your life itself could be your artwork, and you could be the creator of your life, just like you’re creating a work of art. That’s The Radiant Tarot in a nutshell.

DG: When you’re reading the work, you’re both discovering the work, but also discovering yourself in a sense. Both for you as an artist, but also the relationship between the reader and the text.

TB: Absolutely true. Think about the Tarot card as a Rorschach. You look at a Rorschach—there’s an old joke. A man goes into a psychologist’s office and says: “Well, I’ve been having all these strange dreams. I don’t know what to make of it.” The psychologist says: “Well, let’s do a little test. Here, look at this picture. It’s called a Rorschach. And what do you see?” The man says: “Well, I see a man and a woman making love.” The psychologist says: “Well, look at this next one. What do you see here?” The man says: “I see a man and another man and yet another man and a woman making love.” The psychologist says: “Okay. Look at this one. What do you see here?” The man says: “A man and a woman and a dog making love.” The psychologist says: “Well, I think I’ve diagnosed your problem—you’re a sexual addict.” The man says: “You’re calling me a sexual addict after showing me all these dirty pictures?” So, anyways, bad joke, but the point is that so much of what see in the cards comes from what’s in our mind. It’s just like theater exercises or art prompts or creative writing exercises. You drop a line into the unconscious and whatever deep sea fish is swimming around down there will grab the hook. You pull it out and the Tarot card is your fishing line.

DG: This leads into the next question of mindset, and what you feel in any given moment. I would like to ask you, Tony, talking about psychology and this sort of fishing hook into the psyche, there’s a story that you met the pilot of Enola Gay, Paul Tibbets, who dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima—that must’ve been a pretty big fishing hook into your psyche. What was that meeting like, and for better or worse, what did you learn as a result of the encounter, and how did it change you?

TB: At that time, I was married to my college girlfriend, Ayame Fukuda, who was born in Japan, later naturalized as an American citizen, parents also born in Japan, and I was very close with my in-laws, my Japanese-American family, knowing that the children I thought we were going to have were going to be Eurasian, so sitting down at the dinner table with the man who dropped an atom bomb on a non-military target—creating a chain-reaction explosion that with the power of twenty-thousand tons of dynamite killed 130,000 people in an instant, plus all the people who died of radiation poisoning afterwards—it was a challenging moral moment for me. I felt I couldn’t just sit silently and be polite and have good dinner conversation with this “honored guest” who was brought to the college. I had to ask the question: “What do you think about these revisionist historians who question the morality of dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima?” And his response was: “If you could’ve seen the patriotism we felt—if you had seen our sincerity, you would never have asked that question. The days of knights meeting out on the field in one to one fighting, that’s long over. In total war, everyone is guilty, and everyone deserves to die.” Now, that’s a moral stance. That’s a very strong moral stance. You asked the question: “How did that make me feel?” Well, I mean, obviously I didn’t have much to say. I wasn’t going to argue with our distinguished guest, right? I did, at least, ask the question, and I got his response, and it made me really understand something key, which is that maybe the atom bomb sped up the end of the war, although some argue that, in fact, it didn’t—depends on the historian. If my father, for example, had gone off—he was of the age—to Japan and fought, well a million Americans, they say, would’ve died in the invasion of the home islands, and there is a good chance that I would never have been born. On the other hand, I was married to a Japanese American—my mother-in-law was from an old Samurai family, and it’s a complex mix of feelings. In some sense, I was on both sides of the war. It felt a bit like the perspectivism of Santayana and Nietzsche—this idea that your morality depends on your perspective. There’s the African proverb: “Until the lions learn to speak, the hunters will always be the heroes of the story.” And so, this launched me into the Tongue of War book, because I began to ask: “Well, what would Oppenheimer say? What would Gandhi say? What would Truman say? What would a Chinese prisoner of war say? What would a Japanese Kamikaze pilot say? What would they all say about these aspects of the war—the dropping of the bomb, the Rape of Nanjing, and so on. What would a prisoner of war who found himself released because the war had ended—what would the people in America who were dancing in the streets and celebrating after the dropping of the bomb, because finally this war is going to be over—say? What would a child walking through the streets of Hiroshima— watching people walking with their arms stretched out because their skin had been burned black, it chafed too much, it hurt too much for the skin to touch skin because their skin had been charred like a roast in an oven—say? What would all those people say? And so, this one perspective—this very intense perspective of Paul Tibbets launched me on this journey.

DG: A lot of people feel it was a necessary act, but it was truly courageous of you to ask that question, because, really, necessary for whom? That’s ultimately what we’re talking about. It certainly wasn’t necessary for the innocent Japanese people who had nothing to do with the war.

TB: Do you know why they dropped the bomb on Nagasaki?

DG: I know they dropped the bomb because it was a way of deterring the Soviets—

TB: From seizing more of the islands, because they understood the next conflict was going to be with the Soviet Union, but more specifically, why Nagasaki? Because the first two targets—

DG: Ah, yes, I know this story.

TB: You know the story?

DG: There was the cloud cover—

TB: That’s right.

DG: They moved the target and dropped the bomb on another city—I don’t remember which city they were initially supposed to drop it on—but they moved the target because the original city had been covered by clouds. And that’s fate for you.

TB: That’s fate. The clouds opened up just in time for them to drop the bomb. If the clouds had not opened up, 80,000 people in Nagasaki wouldn’t have died.

DG: And we’re talking about religion. Is this an act of God?

WB: I was with the Quakers—I’m not a Quaker, but I went to a Quaker school, and I worked for the American Friends Service Committee in many countries, especially Mexico, Spain, parts of Latin America, and so forth. I happened to be in an Indian village called Miacatlán. The only people who spoke Spanish were the doctor and the pharmacist. The rest spoke Aztec or Nahuatl—the ancient language—and it came over the radio that the bomb had dropped and the war was over. Most of people whom I was with were Quakers, but not the kind in the East, who were rich and sophisticated, but Central American, who didn’t believe in dancing or going to the movies, and all of them got on the table, and they sent me down to get Tequila, and we all screamed at the top of our lungs: “La bomba ha caído. Termina la Guerra.” “The bomb has dropped. The war is over”—in English and Spanish, and any language we could figure. So, it was a magnificent day for the rest of us. As far as the bomb goes, it’s a long story, as many people had been killed in Tokyo with all the radiation—

TB: In the firebombing of Tokyo, 100,000 people were burned to death in a firestorm.

WB: And the Japanese had tried to have poison gas blown to America so that all the people on the West Coast would die; unfortunately, the winds changed and blew it back on Japan, so they quickly got rid of it. I mean it was a ruthless war on all sides.

DG: Let’s hope we won’t have another—

WB: Hopefully there won’t be major ones, because the world will disappear. Look what’s going on right now. By the way, I just got this book—it’s a beautiful translation of Baudelaire, whom I’ve translated also, the complete poems. It’s by Aaron Poochigian.

DG: Ah, yes, I’ve heard of him. He’s posting on social media about that for some time. It’s such a pleasure to know that you have it, Willis. He’s working incredibly hard on that.

WB: Yes, yes.

DG: He’ll be glad to know that you have it.

TB: He’s a wonderful translator and he’s done many of the great classics.

DG: Willis, let’s transition back to China. You were in China during the Cultural Revolution and even translated some of Mao’s poetry before arriving. In a 2015 NY Times interview you stated that “Mao was an excellent poet behind the gibberish translation. It was the worst kind of Chinglish. If you are a writer, you can see the writing behind even a bad version. Most of his poems have a political element, but he never forgets to bring the classical gods in.” It’s also interesting that China—a country with such an ancient history—should have a language whose grammatical structure accommodates only the present. With respect to the past, how does Mao’s poetry measure up to the great historical voices of Du Fu or Su Dongpo, for example?

WB: Mao had an interesting life. He was a laundry man, of all things, poor. He slept in a bed with eight other people. When they wanted to turn, they had to give a message, and they’d all turn at once, or they’d all fall on the floor, kind of ridiculous. I thought he was a very good poet. I haven’t looked at his work in recent years, but I hold to that. The works are all political, and they refer to ancient Chinese gods, and they’re all based on ancient tradition.

DG: That’s interesting because this is an aspect of his life that many people don’t really know about—the fact that he did write poetry, and, like you said, his poetry isn’t actually that bad. One more question for you, Willis, before we transition back to Tony. So, Chinese poetry and actually Asian authors in general are largely ignored by Western academics—

WB: I don’t think so. On the contrary. It was Pound, Amy Lowell, the whole Bloomsbury group that discovered Chinese poetry, and Japanese, which gave them Imagism, and a whole new way of expressing picture poems in verse. No, I think Chinese poetry had an immense effect on Western poetry, in particular English poetry. I mention Amy Lowell and so forth, and Pound, of course.

DG: What I mean is that, of course, Chinese literature did influence many individual writers, especially those you mention, but what I’m saying is that the academy doesn’t study it often. We don’t really read translations of Chinese poets, for example, in an MFA program, or even Comparative Literature programs—

WB: That depends on which one it is. They certainly did in mine.

DG: So times have changed, then? When I was a teaching assistant at the comparative literature program at Cal State Long Beach, most of that was very Eurocentric, but it seems like in the past there was this emphasis, like you say—there was a focus on Eastern authors as well, yes?

WB: It’s not only Eastern authors, but also “Eastern” authors also in Europe, like Mayakovsky, and a whole gang of other marvelous poets, including Greek poets. I think in the 20th century—this is a generalization, but I stand by it—the greatest poetry, apart from English, was written by the Greeks and the Spaniards (Lorca, Jimenez). They had more Nobel Prizes than America has had, but America has never had a Nobel Prize in Poetry—

TB: Well, with the exception of Bob Dylan, because that’s songwriting, of course. And, actually, Louise Glück just won.

WB: That’s right!

TB: Now we have two.

DG: Times are a-changin’ and so I agree with you, Willis, it depends on where you are and who you’re studying with, but there should be more emphasis in general on Eastern literature, because it’s just as good, if not better sometimes. Let’s come back to you, Tony, but let’s stay with China. With your father, you spent one year in Beijing translating the work of Tang Dynasty poet, Wang Wei. Can you talk about those experiences, what you learned, and not just about translation but the overall culture in which you were situated, and how the approach in translating Chinese poetry differs from other translations? In other words, how close can an English version, for example, get to what you’ve called “the poem behind the poem?”

TB: It would help to define my terms a little bit. When I talk about the “poem behind the poem,” I go back to an idea that was prevalent in modernism—that, as Le Corbusier said, “a house is a machine for living in,” and a book is also a machine for understanding. As William Carlos Williams wrote, “a poem is a machine made out of words.” Well, if it’s a machine, it does work, and it does a particular kind of work. And if you translate a poem without translating the work that the poem does, then what ends up happening is you haven’t really translated what the poem’s function is, like for example, let’s say you translate the poem’s meaning—meaning by meaning, not just word by word, but meaning by meaning, phrase by phrase, image by image, and you get that all across in your English, but maybe the poem was really not about any of those things. Maybe the poem was really a sound poem, or maybe the poem was a formal poem in which the rhyme is really essential, or maybe like “Drinking Alone in the Moonlight,” by Li Bai for example, it’s a poem about the moon, but the word “moon” only appears once or twice in the poem, but the moon radical—Chinese characters are made up of radicals put together, like little pictograms—appears several times throughout the poem. And so, the poem has moonlight shining all the way through it. That’s the poem behind the poem. So, your job isn’t just to figure out what the poem says—that’s what CliffsNotes does to literature; it says: Here’s what you can write your paper about. So, it’s not just what the poem says, but what the poem does. If you’re translating the poem behind poem, that’s what you’re translating. When you come to Chinese poetry, that’s particularly hard, because compared to English, Chinese is immensely ambiguous, especially classical Chinese poetry. You often don’t know the number of things. Is it one crow and one tree, or is it many crows and many trees, or many crows and one tree? We don’t know, right? And so, there’s an incredible ambiguity—you can drop the pronouns, it can almost be just pure language in the five characters, or seven characters, or four characters of the line. It might be largely nouns, verbs, and adjectives—power words—with maybe a preposition or so, but these connectives that give it specificity in English are dropped out for a more precise, more intense vision in the poem. So, what do you do in English? How much of that ambiguity do you bring across without losing the poem’s meaning? Another question—is this really what the poem’s work is? Is this really what the machine of the poem is trying do? So, in the sense, the deeper question to ask yourself is: How can I translate the machine of the poem? And from Chinese to English it’s really hard as compared to, say, Spanish to English, where there’s so many cognates, and where the structure of the language is so similar.

DG: Indeed, the whole concept of the machine of the poem, not just the meaning, but what it’s doing, the process itself of the poem—it has many parts and they come together and it’s important not just to translate the parts, as you say, but what all the parts do—

TB: I’ll give you one quick example. There’s a poem by Su Dongpo that is a poem which can be read beginning to end, or end to beginning. Now, when you’re translating that poem, you better damn well make sure that your translation can be read the same way.

DG: That’s going to be quite a challenge.

TB: It’s a challenge. It’s a big challenge, but if you don’t live up to that challenge, you haven’t really translated the poem.

DG: Very interesting. Let’s stay with one more question for you and then we’ll jump back to Willis. Given all the fascinating things you’ve said about Chinese poetry, I’d like to talk about your anthology of Chinese poetry, The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry, covering 3000 years of literary tradition from the Book of Songs composed during the Zhou Dynasty to the Swiss-Chinese poet, Yang Lian. In the introduction, you write: “We have also attempted to adjust the canon, here and there, to shine a spotlight on fine poets whose work is often overlooked, and especially to make room for the poems of Chinese women.” Along with the difficult process of selecting, compiling, and editing this anthology, can you talk about how the activity of bringing less recognized Chinese writers to the forefront helped shape your own understanding the literary tradition, and how is their writing either stylistically different or similar to the more well-known names in the anthology?

TB: I think of the Chinese tradition in contrast to that of Japan, where sexism made the mainstream of Japanese literature female versus male. In Japan the male writers were so caught up in Chinese culture that they often wrote in Chinese, as a literary language—in the way that many writers through Milton and onward would write in Latin in addition to writing in English, but the real language of literature was supposed to be in Latin. Or like those Greeks who would write in the artificial language of Katharevousa versus Dimotiki (Demotic Greek), the clean, cleansed language of newspapers and politicians in which you couldn’t really write good poetry—so many examples of that. In Japan, because the women were often not educated in Chinese they wrote in Japanese, and because they were writing in their home language they wrote better literature, and they’re now remembered when a lot of the men are forgotten, so fascinating. But in China, a lot of women were not educated. Sometimes scholars would educate their daughters, and so on, but it was—remember that education in the arts in China was the high road to political promotion, because it was part of the Confucian classics that you had to study, the memorization of The Book of Songs, imperial anthologies, calligraphy, and musical ability, this is what in the West we would call the “renaissance man,” but in China it was a necessary part of passing your imperial exams in order to be promoted up in the government—not something that women could do, unless you happened to be the empress and the emperor died in which case you could run the country as the Empress Dowager, but that was rare. So, therefore, women’s literature wasn’t preserved; it was often written but not preserved in the way that men’s literature was. I’ll give you an example: There’s the Nüshu, the woman’s writing, where women in the west of China created their own language, and would write in this women’s language poems of love, poems of friendship, elegies, and so on, that were so important to them that knowing they would never be published, never be part of the literary tradition, they often would take their books of poetry and ask to be buried with them or burned with them upon their death. So there’s a great literature in China—a great women’s literature in China, and guess where it is? It’s ash in the sky. It’s rotting in the ground, underground. Yet some women’s literature still does survive. It may be that Li Qingzhao only has fifty or some poems that survive versus Lu You who has over a couple thousand, but every one of her poems is better than every one of his. So, I’m happy to emphasize her work over his, even though fewer of hers survive.

DG: That’s fascinating. Talking about women, we spoke about Sappho as well. Much of her work is just fragments, and it doesn’t exist anymore. Only God knows how much better she would be if we had the complete collection, all the work?

WB: We still have enough to make her the best of all, the best we ever had and have.

TB: It’s a process of literary reconstruction, right, Willis? You work with the fragments and fill in the gaps.

WB: If you have any knowledge of Greek, you can save so many poems, as I did.

DG: You have to recover as much as you can.

WB: One thing, however. If you have a son as smart as Tony, you better watch out. You’re in trouble.

DG: Aha, but this competition is a healthy competition. It leads to a lot of positive creative developments and breakthroughs, so this is quite good. Let’s come back to you, Willis, and go to a different continent now, Africa, where you also traveled extensively. You spent a lot of time in Kenya, for example, and your sequence of poems, African Bestiary, contains sonnets as well as invented forms. Can you talk about your travels throughout Africa, the uniqueness of this land, how it influenced the poems you wrote, and some of the forms you invented for this particular sequence?

WB: Well, I first began going to North Africa, back in 1951, and I kept going to Tangier, which is a fascinating city where the exiles of former kings and counts—from Eastern Europe, especially, but also some from Western Europe, French—went because they had no taxation, so they could make as much money, inherit as much money, and not give anything back. I loved being there. I loved the meals, everything. Later, Tony came up with the idea of going to Africa, and he said you have about twenty minutes to decide, and so we went. It was the most magnificent experience. We saw not only Kenya in the end. We also saw Tanzania. We went down as far as Zanzibar. We were in the middle of the Indian Sea, and a boat came by with about fifty or a hundred college girls, and Tony went off, saying: “See you soon, Willis.” And fortunately, I had—

TB: I don’t remember that.

WB: I had rubber fins to keep me floating because we had been towed up by a motorboat—it was impossible to get back to shore on my own. And I thought: “What a wonderful way to die out here in the sea.” But after a few hours or so Tony came back, and we had a great time. We continued, and I hope he had a good time with the women. I don’t think he ever told me, but Tony—

TB: I don’t remember any of that, but I do remember going to the island that we swam to and seeing the giant sea tortoises there.

WB: Yeah.

TB: I remember that.

WB: He must have been intoxicated—totally intoxicated by the lovely, young American women.

TB: I think Willis had an erotic dream and placed me in it.

DG: Aha! You’re still here, Willis. You made it through all of it. You’ve been everywhere and lived to tell about it all. You wrote about it, so you’ve truly seen and done everything there’s to do.

WB: I’ve never been to the South Pole—

DG: There’s still time, Willis. There’s still time. God willing—

TB: One quick thing about Africa. When we went to Kenya and Tanzania, and especially in Kenya, we did an extensive amount of touring of the game parks, along with birding at Lake Baringo, as well. So we would be in our truck, our Jeep, and we would be driving along with our guide through the Savannah—who was named Moses, which was appropriate. And so, Moses would be taking us along, and I would be like: “Look, Willis, a rhinoceros. Look, Willis, a leopard. Look, Willis, an ostrich.” And Willis would be writing sonnets in his notebook. He would look at the animal and then look away from the animal to write it all down. He spent his whole time writing, but he enjoyed it too. This book came very much out of his focus to write a bestiary.

DG: There was a poem about a hippo that you sent me, Willis, with your illustration that was quite nice. I like that poem, and now I know where all the inspiration came from. Tony was directing your inspiration there.

WB: We had a marvelous time. I remember in Zanzibar we each bought shoes to go on our rough feet. I think we paid about a dollar or fifty cents for them. They were lousy but at least we had something to protect our feet. The Africans were so sweet. They were poor. They ate too much meat. When we left, they treated us to a big free meal at a restaurant called something like—

TB: It was called Carnivore. It was a place where you would go to eat unusual animals, like ostrich, or crocodile.

WB: Crocodile tongue.

TB: Crocodile, or wildebeest, yeah.

DG: Truly an experience. This is not something you can get from books. You can only get it from people who’ve been there, like you. And so, I want to ask you, Willis, would you say you learned more about the world through your travels or books. If you had to have one or the other—is travel more essential to the human experience or books?

WB: I think it’s an unfair question because—

DG: It is. It is. I admit: It’s an unfair question, but you’re the perfect person for it. You’re both well-read, and you’re also well-traveled.

WB: If you’re not well-read, you can’t do anything with travel, and if you haven’t traveled what you read isn’t necessarily superficial, but it lacks a lot of very emotional and pictorial truths, which you only get by being there.

DG: That’s a perfect answer. I agree with you, because you miss much of the context in which that literature is written.

WB: The Romantics had—I mean Keats was marvelous but he hadn’t been to many of the places he wrote about. At least he ended up in Rome, and sadly died so young.

DG: Shelley, on the other hand, didn’t make it.

WB: The wind was too strong. He drowned.

DG: One more question for you, Willis. We’re basically at the end. We’ve done a good job.

WB: We’ve gone so fast through an hour? Is there no way of expanding time?

DG: Time is time. We can neither shorten nor lengthen it. Let’s go to the last frontier. Let’s go to the New World. Let’s go to America. I would like to talk about something quintessentially American. So from Africa we jump to America and Babe Ruth. It seems like you knew him. Did you really live in the same building, and do you have any interesting stories?

WB: I did live in the same building, on 90th and Riverside, which went from 90th to 89th. He lived on the 89th street side, and what happened was I was ten years old, and the doorman said: “Hey, kid, we’re going up to the Babe’s.” We crossed the little place there, the courtyard, we go up to the 18th floor. He had the penthouse up there, in a very big place. And when I went in, there were twenty or thirty photographers. It was 1939, just before the war started, and he had been an orphan himself. Very poor as he started out. He had sympathy for the poor, believe it or not, even though he was one of the richest baseball players. He loved women. He loved alcohol—

DG: And cigars.

WB: So, anyway, they took the picture, and it appeared on the front pages of most newspapers, and so I became famous for a day. When I got back to the World’s Fair (1939-1940), we picked up Pepsi and Coke bottles and sold them for two cents each at the local grocery, so we could get rich and pay our way back on the trains. It was great fun in those days.


(Willis Barnstone, left, with Babe Ruth)

 

From Willis Barnstone’s STICKBALL ON 88TH STREET

The Building

Babe Ruth lives on the other
side of the court. His brother-in-law

jumped from the 18th
story into the handball

area where play until tenants
got angry. I heard the thump

when I was in
bed. The Babe gave

me a baseball diploma. The same
elevatorman, Joe, who slapped for

not being nice to
Jerry (it wasn’t true)

took me upstairs to the Babe’s
for the photos in the Daily News.

Sunday afternoon we hear
Father Coughlin and Hitler

live, shrieking on the radio. Everyone
hates Hitler. Comes a strike, new

men keep billy clubs
by the doors. I

like the scabs same as Ruddy
and Joe outside to whom we

bring sandwiches. I heard
Ruddy got hit trying to

bust in. They almost broke
his head. It’s funny for men

to ride me up
the elevator. I always

run downstairs. They slow me down
as I race for the outside

into the north pole
wind and the gully.

But often I spend the afternoon
in a corner of the elevator,

going up and down
in the tired coffin.

When no one else is riding,
they let me close the brass

gate. I do it
like a grown man.

 

DG: Indeed. These stories are equal to the ones you and Tony told about Africa, and they’re quintessentially American. Thank you for that. Let’s transition back to you now, Tony. In staying with the American theme, I’d like to talk about your 2006 collection, Golem of Los Angeles, which won Red Hen’s Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award, and contains a powerful poem, “Parable in Praise of Violence,” featuring the following epigraph by H. Rap Brown: “Violence is as American as cherry pie.” Throughout the poem you sarcastically give thanks for all the greatness and depravity produced on these shores, but the fourth stanza is especially powerful: “My life is like a loaded gun, and when I aim it at you / I hope to take off the top of your head, / no safety on, no playing nice, just the spark, / the flash, the damage, just red American / cherry pie violence.” Did you compose the poem as a response to something specific or was it more a state of mind back then, and how do you feel about all that today, when things aren’t exactly improving—do you manage to retain a sense of optimism?

TB: Part of it, of course, is the reference to the Dickinson poem—“my life was like a loaded gun,” a very interesting poem. But for me, it also goes back to the idea of the poem being a machine made out of words. And one kind of machine, of course, is the gun. Like the gun, like the violence of the gun, the poem itself, as a machine, may not take off the top off your heads—”I know it’s poetry if it takes off the top off my head,” as Dickinson writes. It may not actually take off the top of your head, but it can give you that sense of almost violent ecstasy. The poem can ravish you emotionally. For me, from the very beginning, I wanted my poetry to do something, not just be polite—nice, domestic poetry that didn’t actually move the emotions and challenge you intellectually. So, there’s that. But on the other side of the question is the way in which, at that time and especially today, the American obsession with violence—particularly with guns and using guns as part of our revolutionary consciousness—permeates so many levels of society. I think we have been a sold a story of America, one story of America, whereas there are many stories of America that could be told—as can be seen with the current debate about critical race theory. But one story of America is that it was an enlightenment project, a revolutionary project against the order of absolute monarchs, or limited monarchy such as in England, and of despotic rule, culminating in a move towards the democratic representation of the people that started out with only white males of a certain economic level who could vote, and slowly that expanded to the rest of Americans, except for children, of course. Yet, that story of the Revolution, that story of the justifiable revolution against the father country, against the king, where we take up arms against oppression, has so permeated American consciousness, it has so become our “rebel without a cause,” not to mention the “movies” that are constantly sold to us about these violent men who create Second Amendment solutions to social problems, who are basically, if you think about it, no different in their own way than those men who put on white hoods and lynched African Americans, Jews, and others they considered undesirable—the lynchings in the Old South—that vigilante justice is at the core of the story Americans tell about themselves, and especially how it ties into our idea that the three hundred or so million guns owned by Americans are a bulwark against an oppressive government. And what’s happening right now, sadly, is that because of the pervasive propaganda, the disinformation of right-wing media has sold Americans a story that their government has been taken away from them, and they need to threaten death against election workers, politicians—they need to be ready to take up arms, as they did on January 6th, and storm Congress to take back America, just like the American Revolutionaries had to do against King George. That story is being told to us. It’s all a lie. But Americans sadly enough, if they get their news from the wrong place, they will get that propaganda, and they will believe it’s true, and they’ll be willing to kill each other. That’s why violence is as American as cherry pie. It’s our essential story. We need to take up violence, take up guns, take up arms, against oppression, even if that oppression doesn’t exist, even if the people we’re taking up arms against are, in fact, the victims. So, sadly enough—obviously I’m worked up about this—we’re in a bad place in America. We might be at the end of democracy. And I hope not.

WB: I don’t think that’s true. I mean it’s something that anyone who went to junior high school should know, but the notion of the Second Amendment giving people the right to have guns is not in the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment was written because—I think it was in 1812 or 1810 that they thought the English were going to attack again and try to reconquer the States, or America, whatever you want to call it. And it said they could have militias—it did not say people could have guns, and it was only for a special purpose of fighting the British, and so this misleading idea that it gave single people the right to have guns is just nonsense.

TB: And the supposedly originalist Supreme Court justices who said we have to go back to the context in which the laws were written ignore that history, because it doesn’t fit with their preferred story.

DG: I agree. The laws were written for a certain time. We can’t apply the standards of one time onto another.

WB: Right, and it isn’t only that it didn’t say that—it didn’t even say that because it doesn’t deal with the question of personal ownership. It doesn’t say you can’t have guns. It only says you can form militias.

TB: Dark image to end the interview on. Do you want to ask another question, so we end on something lighter?

DG: I have two more questions. For you and Willis. Are you reading or working on anything at the moment, Willis? What are you up to these days?

WB: I’m up to about three books. I did a book on Apollinaire—a translation with many illustrations. I finished my Baudelaire translation, again with paintings, and right now I am just tuning up with Tony’s help to make it all stay in place—these are big books—a 656-page book called Magic Couplets: Portraits of Poets

TB: Beautiful paintings he made, and with couplets.

DG: Yeah, the stuff you’ve been sending me, Willis, the illustrations, the poems—you’re incredibly active. You work on every level—

WB: I’m only 94 years old—give me a break.

DG: You work like you’re 55. That’s what I’m trying to say. You’re incredible. The energy you have. The vitality with which you produce the work is just incredible. May we all reach that point. May we all have a little bit of the blessing that you’ve had. Keep on going, Willis. All the power to you. You will write more books. You may even make it to Antarctica. Who knows?

WB: I’ll tell you a funny story, if there’s time for it. When I was 20, I went to spend a year in the Doctoral Program at the Sorbonne. At 21, I went to Greece, and Louis MacNeice, the poet, was then head of the British Institute. And in those days, everybody knew everybody. The world was small. If you wanted to get in touch with Camus, you wrote him a letter, and he answered you within twenty-four hours. I had wonderful correspondence with everybody. And so, MacNeice, said: “Willis, you know, I’m here, head of the British Institute. I taught Greek history and translated plays from Ancient Greek all my life, and here we are, and I’ve never climbed the fucking Acropolis.” In those days, they didn’t have roads to go up there, because they didn’t want the Turks to bring their big guns up top again. So it was a farce, this thing—MacNeice was a man of about 6’3 or 4, handsome guy, and we’re walking together, and he trips and falls. His head is full of blood. He takes his handkerchief—there’s a huge smile on his face. He takes his handkerchief out of his—in those days, you know, everyone who climbed the Acropolis had a three-piece suit on, and so he takes his handkerchief, wipes the blood of his face, and he says: “I’ve come to Greece. I’ve climbed the Acropolis. And bathed myself in blood and marble.” The image of blood and marble is memorable.

TB: Let me tell a very fast anecdote. I was walking through the streets of Athens with my ex-girlfriend and her nephew. He was six years old at the time. And we look through the streets, and up the hill we see on top of the hill—the child says: “Look, look, over there, you can see the apocalypse!”

WB: He was a Bible scholar, obviously …. Heaven is described terribly in the New Testament. I translated the New Testament—2000 pages—and you know, there’s nothing to eat up there, because the walls are made of diamonds, the floors of gold, etc. You can’t get much food growing in pure, rich, wealth of stones. It doesn’t work, so better go to Hell where you can roast things—you can roast lousy hamburgers on the fire, unless you’re with Dante.

TB: It’s like an old joke, but I won’t tell the joke, but it’s like an old joke I could tell you.

DG: Well, well, guys, we’ve come a long way. I’d like to ask you the same question, Tony: What are you working on? You’re helping Willis, and it would also be nice to hear something about your own projects. This is a nice note to end on.

TB: Sure. Four things right now, which is actually less than normal. Usually, I’m working on about fifteen, but a lot of them have come to fruition. One: I just published a translation of the Urdu ghazals of the great Kashmiri poet, Ghalib, and that just came out with White Pine Press. That took a good fifteen years or so. I’m really happy to have that out—

DG: Congratulations.

TB: Thank you. My co-translation is with Bilal Shaw—a good friend of mine. I’m writing children’s poetry. I’ve written a book of children’s poetry. I’m collaborating with my niece, Maya Barnstone, who’s a wonderful young artist who lives in Sydney Australia, and so that’s going to be a really exciting project. We hope to get the book illustrated within a year and start sending it out. Here’s one poem:

I’ve also written an ABC of animals that I illustrated myself. Here is “N is the Nightingale”:

The other thing I’m working on—a very large critical book about William Carlos Williams that uses Williams as a lens to open up modernism, within the question of how the arts and humanities relate to technoscience, and the battle for authority between, let’s say, science and technology on the one hand, and poetry, art, and philosophy on the other hand. And the ways in which they began to—you know, the machine made out of words. When Williams talks about that, he’s appropriating the language. He’s doing the intellectual appropriation of technology, so as to give poetry the aura of the machine. Poetry in the machine age, or the authority of science. It’s a long story and a big book that starts with Bacon and goes all the way through the atom bomb. It’s a big project.

WB: What are you working on?

DG: I’m living in Italy, Willis. I’m working on interviews. I’m having fun interviewing incredible people like you. I’m focused on my writing and teaching English here to Italians. It’s all going well. Thank you so much for asking, Willis. It’s going well. It’s going about as well as it can.

WB: Yes.

TB: There’s a lot of room for good translations of contemporary Italian poets.

DG: There is. There is. I just have to pick up the language a little bit more. I’m not quite at that level.

TB: Indeed. Oh, I did want to mention one other project I forgot to mention.

DG: Sure.

TB: The other last project I’m working on—I’ve finished a book of new poems. And as you could probably hear from what I was saying before, it’s very much a response to where are in the current moment politically, to four years of Trump, and the certain rhetoric of violence, the decline of democratic norms, the fear of the end of democracy that we seem to be spinning towards, the era of climate change, environmental degradation and disaster. “Look, you can see the apocalypse!” Right? That sense of difficult times that we’re living through right now, and that’s really what the book’s premise is about.

DG: That’s fascinating, Tony. Probably the Greeks—they would’ve perhaps had better solutions. They’re an ancient people, but, in a sense, perhaps, they would’ve been more in tune, more in touch with how to solve these problems because they had a complete education. They focused on the whole individual. They didn’t just focus on the so-called mental aspect of education—they cared for the spiritual, the physical side of the individual, which are things we neglect, and perhaps this is why we’re in the state we’re in today. We are focused on science, but we neglect the spiritual side of our own being, and that’s maybe why have these disasters—COVID is a product of science. I don’t know. I don’t have the answer to the question. All I know is that we have to try and get out of this conundrum.

TB: It could be that we’re living inside a Greek tragedy.

DG: Maybe. Maybe. Yeah, like Huxley said: Maybe this world is another planet’s hell. Who knows? No one really knows, but somehow we have to persevere and make do. We have to stay positive. Thank you so much. It’s truly been a pleasure, Tony, Willis. With immense gratitude from the bottom of my heart, I really appreciate it. This has been an incredibly positive experience for me. I wish you, Tony, all the best with your projects. Willis, likewise. I wish you all the best. I look forward to seeing more of your poems, more of your illustrations, more of your books. I’m sure that will happen.

TB: Thank you, David. Thank you for all that you do.

DG: Be well.

WB: And as I say to my good friends: “Don’t take any wooden nickels.”

DG: I won’t, Willis. I won’t.

 

 

About Willis Barnstone

About Tony Barnstone

 

Social Media Gestapo and NKVD: Djokovic and Meat Loaf, an article by David Garyan

23/01/2022
Trento, Italy

 

Social Media Gestapo and NKVD: Djokovic and Meat Loaf

Distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful
Friedrich Nietzsche

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi recently signed a decree stating that from February 1st, a Super Green Pass will be required to access all forms of public transport, along with bars and restaurants (indoors and outdoors), theaters, cinemas, stadiums, gyms, and so on. A Super Green Pass can only be attained through vaccination, or through recovery after testing positive for COVID. In other words, negative tests will no longer work. In an unprecedented move, people will now also be required to have the basic Green Pass to access banks and post offices. The question is why? Why this disproportionate response?

Not long ago, the good Prime Minister went on record saying the following: “Most of the problems we are facing today depend on the fact that there are unvaccinated people.” That’s very funny. Of course, in a so-called democracy it’s easy to blame people who, for whatever reason, decide they don’t want to do something the state tells them. Let’s admit many of those “dissidents” have no legitimate reason to avoid the vaccine. If we admit the aforementioned, however, let’s also acknowledge that when a state doesn’t give you the right to have ownership over your own body—to have a choice—then that state isn’t really free. Even if a government forces its individuals to do something which is ultimately beneficial for them, it’s not freedom—it’s merely efficient autocracy. Dictatorship with benefits. An amusement park you loved in the beginning, but now you can’t leave it. Essentially a prison, but it’s not a prison: Everything inside it is nice and merry, but even if you’ve had your fun, you have to stay. It’s all for your own good.

Draghi’s word’s are pathetic, cheap, and disingenuous. He should pick on someone his own size. Since the 19th century, Italy has been dealing with a pandemic far worse than COVID—a virus the government itself has been complicit in spreading. It has suffocated the majority of rural communities in the south. It dominates almost every important sector of Italian life in places like Naples, Palermo, and Calabria. We’re talking about an epidemic that controls anywhere from 0.7 percent to 1.7 percent of the country’s GDP, according to Reuters, and Andrea Orlando, Italy’s former justice minister, respectively.

While 0.7 and 1.7 percent may seem miniscule, we’re talking about Italy’s entire GDP, which is roughly 1.8 trillion, meaning the figure amounts to anywhere between 13 to 18 billion USD. To make things even clearer, the whole GDPs of countries like Armenia, Albania, and Georgia, for example, are about that much—13, 15, and 16 billion, respectively. Essentially, what we’re saying is the following: If the ‘Ndrangheta, Camorra, and Cosa Nostra were to join forces, their collective profits could amount to bankrolling an entire country like the one in which I was born—Armenia. That’s the real problem. The more unfortunate fact, however, is really this one: “The UN has a target for countries to spend 0.7% of their Gross National Income (GNI) on Official Development Assistance (ODA).” What? Developed western democracies who’ve colonized and plundered the globe only have a duty to set aside less than one percent of their whole GDP to developing poor countries? Excellent. Well done.

It’s good to know countries like the UK, in 2013, “achieved this target for the first time.” Unfortunately, the UK also has a problem: “Since 2015, the Government has also been under a statutory duty to meet it. However, citing the economic impact of the pandemic, the Government will spend 0.5% of GNI for ODA in 2021 as a ‘temporary measure.’ NGOs have said the reduction undermines the Government’s intentions to prioritise global health and girls’ empowerment.” Politicians. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

Draghi is a man of politics, but we shouldn’t hold it against him. We should, however, criticize him for being a coward—a poltroon of the biggest proportions. A bully who acts tough and picks on weak kids to make himself feel strong. The real problem, Mr. Prime Minister, isn’t the unvaccinated—the real problem is government. For over a hundred years, honest, hardworking citizens in your country have been silenced, harassed, and even killed, because pestilence roams the land, and government has not only been unable to stamp it out, many within it have done a great deal to proliferate the disease. Exceptions exist. There are heroic Falcones and Borsellinos today, and the American role in bolstering the problem after WWII as a strong bulwark against communism must also be mentioned.

It seems, however, that people have forgotten the ‘90s. Mani pulite is an Italian expression meaning “clean hands,” but it’s often used to describe the scandal that rocked the country—no, it had nothing to do with a shortage of hand sanitizer during the flu season. Mani pulite was a nationwide corruption campaign that, along with the downfall of the USSR, contributed to bringing down the First Republic. Countless political parties disappeared. Many individuals committed suicide as a result of the controversies. Naturally, things like this happen everywhere.

I have used Italy only as an example because the phrase Mani pulite is so appropriate to the occasion. If Draghi was a real tough guy, he would go after people his own size—organizations that can bankroll small countries—instead of poor, little, irresponsible anti-vaxxers. They aren’t Italy’s problem, and neither are they the world’s. The planet, if you haven’t noticed, is going to shit. It has bigger things to worry about. As people in Africa are dying of hunger, why doesn’t any country donate ten percent of their GDP? More pertinently, when Ebola and Avian influenza were tearing through Africa, why did no one care to lift a finger? Aha. When the pandemics begin to hit the privileged class, it’s time to “really” protect ourselves. Vaccines, boosters, high-grade masks, and the whole nine yards, really.

Why is it so hard for people to accept the following? While government and science have done many great things, they have mostly failed to contain this pandemic. In the beginning, we were told to quarantine, and this would solve the problem—it didn’t. Then we were told to quarantine again, and this didn’t do it either. Quarantines are now a thing of the past—like the Sony Walkman or the floppy disk. Then it was the salvation of vaccines. Hallelujah, Sweet Jesus! How we all waited for that! Finally, an end to the madness! Science the Savior had arrived. And then the vaccines didn’t really work either (I admit—that’s a bit dishonest). Vaccines did minimize the effects of COVID, drastically reducing the death toll, but their use isn’t sustainable. Their potency is pathetic months after inoculation, meaning constant boosters are needed.

The problem is that the “effectiveness” of vaccines is misleading. Effective? Yes, but for how long? If COVID were to go on for five more years, let’s say, you could no longer rely on vaccines—you would need a course of 10-15 booster shots just to make it to the end, and it’s almost certain no medical study would uphold such a vaccination campaign. So, the disciples of science are merely lucky—they can say their miracles are helping to end the pandemic because if it were to go on for much longer, their Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca would become more useless than the holy water they love to ridicule. The most important question, however, is the following: Why is the situation at its worst precisely now—when cases are sky-high—almost a year after the vaccines were developed? That’s a bit ridiculous. It’s like inventing the electric car to clean up pollution and ending up with more pollution after everyone begins driving them.

Having said all that, the point of the article is neither Draghi nor Italy. The point is our obsessive need to self-police—to self-arrest, even. Before it was the state that assumed all the burdens of tracking and “correcting” deviant behavior. In Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany that was the NKVD and Gestapo, respectively. Citizens occasionally denounced their fellow compatriots, but it was largely the state that utilized its political machinery to achieve total obedience. Today, the work of the state has become easier. Fellow citizens themselves log into Facebook and post all kinds of stupid, logically fallacious propaganda, not worthy of the latest edition of Pravda. What they love to do most of all, however, is to go after the illustrious personalities—the ones who refuse to acquiesce to the state. Most recently? Djokovic and Meat Loaf.

Why do people do this? It seems the need stems from a desire to bring some relevance into their own worthless existences. Their whole lives have been wasted sitting on a couch. They have eaten the frozen TV dinners and watched the sitcom reruns. Now they feel a need to display their accomplishments. The problem is they have none, and so they impose their benevolence on all of society. Naturally, their own meaningless being pales in comparison to the stature of Djokovic and Meat Loaf, and so they feel compelled to market the only achievement they have—bending over and letting the state stick it in.

The media, too, is clever. It capitalizes on the psychological need we have to see people suffer—especially if these people have achieved more than we have. All our lives we’ve been rejected, unable to realize our goals, to be recognized for our work, to travel and have people admire us—indeed, there’s a certain satisfaction to be had in seeing these “privileged” people suffer as well. That’s, in fact, the very same attitude which brought communism to Russia: Look at these privileged noblemen—we have nothing and they have everything. After all, how difficult could it be to ridicule this?

I admit I too felt a certain sense of pleasure hearing the news about Djokovic. Then I analyzed what I had felt. Being honest with myself, I saw how the reaction was driven by my own shortcomings—by my inability to have achieved similar levels of greatness.

The problem is that we’re too pathetic to accept the difficult truth: As Westerners who shout about rights, democracy, and body ownership, it’s really people like Djokovic who are our heroes, but we don’t want them to be our heroes. What we really want is to be Djokovic. To have the same recognition. To have accomplishments on that level. To have the same platform to speak. To have our voices heard. To exercise one’s rights in the way we want. What do I mean? Djokovic is someone who has attained such a level of success that missing an Australian Open—while unfortunate—will not keep him from being remembered as one of the greatest tennis players ever. While the Australian state may shut him down, deny him entry, and harass him, he can still exercise his individuality. He can stand firm. He can act in accordance with his beliefs, suffering the consequences but nevertheless standing firm. We can’t.

We’re proud activists, promoters of democracy, passionate defenders of human rights—only one thing stands in our way: The state has us by the balls. Go ahead. Try to refuse vaccination. You will lose your job. This will force you to live off our savings (those more fortunate will have them). Once those savings dwindle, you’ll be out on the street. You neither have the capital nor the platform to do what Djokovic did—to stand up for your beliefs. So you go after the guy who can. Essentially, you become the arm of the state. That’s what Facebook has grown to be—a cesspool of the vilest stupidity known to man. An online network of Stalinist apparatchiks and Gestapo forces patrolling the ether, hell-bent on punishing any and all deviance.

When Aaron Rodgers tried to stand up for his beliefs, social media grilled him because he had lied. “He should’ve just been honest,” was what many on the internet said. Then athletes like Djokovic were honest, but that wasn’t good enough either. All this, finally, brings me to Meat Loaf.

Meat Loaf is dead. He was an anti-vaxxer. He was a Republican. So what? I would rather have hung out with him than any of the Don Smiths on Facebook with their despicable opinions and poorly designed Microsoft Paint propaganda posters. God, I hate those.

What, really, have those Joe Blows done? Meat Loaf was a rock legend. He had way too many accomplishments to be sitting in front of a screen posting poorly made images on social media. I loved his songs, and I will continue to love them. I wish he’d been vaccinated so he could’ve lived longer, but that’s a choice he made. His decision was part of the totality that made him who he is.

And what about Djokovic? He couldn’t have been Djokovic, if, along with his greatness, he also didn’t have the irresponsible beliefs that come from the same source. We must accept him in his totality. For example, why are surgeons, soldiers, and pilots often numb to other people’s feelings? Because many times their inherently “negative” traits are also what allow them to be good at their jobs—it’s the very source from where the talent originates to begin with. Djokovic and Meat Loaf are and were unique individuals—one a world class athlete, the other a bad boy rock star. If your body works at levels far higher than the average one, perhaps you should have more agency over it, and perhaps you will be more afraid of “tampering” with its “configuration.”

For Meat Loaf, he was just a rebel—this helped him become who he is, and unfortunately it also led to his death. We make choices every day. We make choices that affect the course of our lives. I would think that in a Western democracy, it’s perhaps important to try and preserve the ability to choose whenever possible.

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He received a master’s degree in International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage from the University of Bologna. He lives in Trento.

Coronavirus: The Governmentalization and Medicalization of Safety, an article by David Garyan

26/08/2021
Trento, Italy

 

Coronavirus: The Governmentalization and Medicalization of Safety

Today, thanks to the miracles of science, along with the generosity of the Italian government, I was able to receive my second Pfizer COVID shot at no charge. While I do feel eternally grateful to all the men and women working in the scientific and governmental sector who’ve made vaccination for all possible, I nevertheless have hesitations about the direction our society is taking. To be clear, this article will not engage in debates about the pros and cons of vaccines because there’s really just one stance a responsible person can take in the midst of a pandemic: Whatever risks these substances may pose—and they certainly do pose some as the recent deaths of these young individuals demonstrate—the threats presented by the actual virus will always be far greater than any given vaccine trying to prevent the spread of said virus. In short, more people have died of COVID than COVID jabs; at the same time, it must be admitted that long-term effects are difficult to measure and it’s often impossible to tell whether something years down the line was caused by a jab, by the virus itself, or whether any manifestation was simply due to the natural progression of a person’s physiology, regardless of vaccination, virus, or other variables.

In short, despite trying to avoid a discussion on the safety of vaccines, we’ve nevertheless managed to go off-topic—let’s get back on track and state that it’s not science and government which are the problem, but an overreliance on medicine and politicians. Before I get into a discussion about what I mean precisely, it’s important for me to go on record and state the following: Firstly, as a student of human rights, my appreciation for honest, paradigm-changing world leaders runs deep, and, secondly, my parents (father a medical profession, mother an engineer) were and continue to be sensible people who both ensured that I had all the proper vaccinations done as a child.

So, what’s the problem here? Let’s start with the fact that governments, along with their respective nation-states are only interested in protecting their own skin; the wealthiest and most powerful don’t really care about your health and well-being—they’re only concerned with it insofar as it either corresponds with promoting their treasured agenda, or, more importantly, they strive for “safety” because any degree of uncertainty in the public and private sectors can seriously damage not just their reputation, but also the depth of their pockets.

It seems that the most powerful figures on the planet have fixated on coronavirus at the cost of everything else—they’ve done this to such an extent that your health and well-being paradoxically no longer matter. What do I mean? Well, simply that at the height of the lockdown one year ago, when millions of people were forced to endure months of isolation, no politician or police officer cared to inform themselves about the various problems that such measures could inflict upon the individual. We were told that by isolating ourselves from each other, we would all become “responsible” citizens who would ensure that this particular virus wouldn’t spread, and somehow, in the midst of all the frenzy, we forgot all our other needs; more importantly, we failed to remember everyone else who perhaps wasn’t capable of such feats, whether due to financial reasons, or psychological ones. Just for clarity, below is a picture not of India, but of a ghetto in Camden, New Jersey, meaning this problem ranges far and wide.

Let’s, however, forget for a moment, these oft-discussed places, where the combination of geography, population, and economics, makes it difficult for poor city workers living with twelve other people in one apartment to self-isolate. Instead, let’s talk about things which have been rarely discussed: When the pandemic peaked, and even now, there were and there continue to be almost no studies which focus on the correlation between isolation and physical well-being. In other words, if before the pandemic it was someone’s habit, and perhaps even with the recommendation of his doctor, to take a one-hour or two-hour walk after dinner, why was this essential need repeatedly denied to many people by those in the highest spheres of government, and why were these policies so strictly enforced? Aside from the fact that mental health is also an aspect of well-being, and the effects of isolation on rising depression rates have been well-documented, it’s already becoming clear that the elite aren’t interested in protecting the fragility of the human body and spirit when those measures may not only expose, but, more importantly, threaten the fragility of their respective nation-states. In times of crisis, the safety of the flag will always supersede the safety of the bodies which carry it and represent it, metaphorically speaking, because it’s after all the masses who ensure its security.

The government, ultimately, isn’t keen on being creative; during the most desperate moments of the pandemic, it wasn’t interested in the well-being of the poet, who simply wanted to walk the street alone at night and look at the stars; it wasn’t interested in the claustrophobic athlete who yearned to jog in the early hours of the morning; it wasn’t interested in the artist who suffers from panic attacks if he spends too much time in the tiny studio he can barely afford; it wasn’t interested in the old widow—that surely must exist somewhere—who’ll incur a nervous breakdown unless she visits the grave of her husband every week to lay flowers, but florists are inessential and all shops are closed until further notice; it wasn’t interested in the single mother with three young kids who would surely drive her crazy if they couldn’t spend at last two hours at the park, which was located far across town, where no supermarkets could be found—ah, the excuse of going shopping; it wasn’t interested in the countless Alberts, Jacks, Sophies, Amandas, or whoever else it may be that had heart conditions and lived in the heart of the city, but couldn’t do their usual walk because it didn’t fall into the category of “essential” activity. No, with the well-being of these people the government wasn’t in the least bit concerned—they did what they needed to do, and, in many cases, placed individuals in far greater danger than COVID could’ve ever presented.

Other than the rising and falling coronavirus numbers, there was and continues to be hardly any data on which illnesses or diseases people may have contracted as a result of following the lockdown strictly as prescribed. For my own safety, mental health, and overall well-being, I’m not ashamed to say that I broke curfew laws many times, and had I not done that, perhaps the effects of the quarantine may have manifested themselves in more serious psychological, and God forbid, physiological ways. Thus, it was only a small inconvenience to be stopped occasionally, to have my paperwork checked, just to know, at the end of the day, that I was still human—a person with feelings, needs, and emotions who considered looking at the night sky an “essential” activity (despite what the government might tell us) not only for my creativity, but for the vitality of my body and spirit. I’m not ashamed to admit this.

This is the freedom I’m talking about—the human right to exercise one’s individuality, to know what’s best for you and your body, mainly because a generic measure to stay at home can’t possibly apply to everyone. Responsibility in this sense, then, isn’t just about making sure other people are safe, but also about making sure that you can likewise protect yourself while looking out for others. If our leaders had been more creative, many governments around the world could’ve instituted measures like designated meeting areas with specific dates and times for everyone, configured with an app or QR code system, for example, but they didn’t do that. For students, they could’ve introduced initiatives to hold classes in parks or even stadiums, which naturally weren’t being used, with respect for social distancing rules, but nothing of the sort was attempted—and not only because these things are difficult, costly, and time-consuming, but, more importantly, because the elite don’t really care about your well-being, unless it threatens their own status and pocket. Words like safety, responsibility, and health are hollow catchphrases, thrown around to give the illusion of compassion, concern, and duty, all things which the ruling classes supposedly embody, but most of this rhetoric is meaningless at best and dishonest at worst.

It seems to me that progressively-minded thinkers, something I consider myself to be, aren’t consistent in the way they apply the doctrine of choice: Why is it that we view abortion, more correctly, a woman’s right to decide what’s best for her body, in very positive terms, while the decision regarding vaccines can’t be left to the will of the individual? In both cases, we’re dealing with matters of life and death, and while irresponsibility in either scenario must not be tolerated, we should ultimately settle the issue of who has ownership over our bodies— individuals themselves or the bureaucracy of the state.

Having spoken about government, it’s now time to discuss science, and my opinions about the topic are really not much more positive, despite the supposed altruism of the field. For one, science, like government, has made us believe that it alone can solve our problems; whereas politicians claim this right in the sphere of social issues, scientists, arrogantly, claim it on the medical front. Vaccines, as I wrote, are safe and effective, and especially during pandemics, they’re an indispensable element in containing the spread of a virus—but that’s just it; they’re only one small part of the matter, not the whole substance. Just like government alone can’t eradicate mass poverty or even a single person’s destitution without individual initiative (hard work, education, proactiveness), so too science, let alone vaccines, can’t eradicate pandemics or even one person’s disease without our freedom to choose what’s best for us (the perfect diet for each individual body, appropriate exercise for every person, proper rest, pleasure, and other activities); in amount and duration, all these requirements will naturally vary, depending on psychology and biology, and this is precisely why people must be given the freedom to choose—responsibly—when it’s best for them to go outside, eat, play, and so on, without the government placing blanket restrictions on its subjects.

Science has become so powerful that it has miraculously been able to solve most of our problems, but that’s precisely its flaw. Those who believe that a vaccine will eliminate the coronavirus are deeply mistaken, and, likewise, forcing people to get jabs shows, in fact, that we’re interested only in the easy way out—we encounter a difficulty and we aspire to kill it immediately, without examining its root causes or underlying motives that are driving us towards such behavior. There’s no vaccine for the complications of global poverty, intolerance, ignorance, and greed. Unfortunately, while there’s also no vaccine for depression, thankfully, at least, there are drugs, and so, if you’re in bad shape, take something immediately without thinking about why you may be feeling that way—for the love of God, just take a pill and don’t worry about whether you could’ve recovered more creatively with the help of music or friends, perhaps. Science, in this respect, has come to dominate our lives to such an extent that the totality of the individual is being sacrificed for the benefit of the nation state—the classic definition of fascism.

It’s precisely this aforementioned medicalization of safety that I have a problem with—unlike the East, we don’t believe that art, prayer, and meditation, just as examples, can really solve the most difficult issues plaguing our society. Yes, we have incredible venues for art in Europe and the US; there are magnificent churches in which people still conduct prayers to this day, but these things, ultimately, are considered “inessential.” In other words, we don’t take artists and religion seriously—most of us engage in these activities mainly because they add decorum and entertainment to our lives, but the belief that art and prayer are in fact necessary to make the functioning of a harmonious, prosperous society possible isn’t really genuine; the proof for this lies right in the fact that art and faith were the first to suffer during the pandemic.

Instead of the government reaching out to creative individuals with the hopes of finding unique solutions, they shut them down in the name of safety because it doesn’t pay to have a “healthy” public when the goals of that healthy public don’t align with the values of the status quo. The attempt to build the complete individual as envisioned by the Ancient Greeks, for example—strong body and mind through the study of art, philosophy, and sports doesn’t seem to be a priority in the modern world. Depression and pandemics are better cured with drugs and vaccines alone, than with the holistic combination of music, healthy lifestyles based on individual choice, art, and a little self-reflection (perhaps even philosophy); these measures are inconvenient, time-consuming, and expensive, and, most of all, they can even threaten the elite, which is why no one cares to implement them, and why also politicians stipulate to their citizens that “responsible” people can only win the fight against the coronavirus with quarantines and vaccines—everything else is a conspiracy designed to discredit government and science. How convenient for them! We must demand more accountability and creativity from our leaders, and those who speak out regarding such matters, demanding precisely those things, shouldn’t be labeled as anti-vaxxers, agitators, right-wing fanatics, or any other disparaging epithet, because you may find that they aren’t any of those things.

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He recently graduated from the University of Bologna with a degree in International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage. He lives in Trento.

Looking in From the Outside: The Arab-Israeli Conflict, an article by David Garyan

12/05/2021
Ravenna, Italy

 

Looking in From the Outside: The Arab-Israeli Conflict

For a sensible person, aware of history’s complexities, it should not be difficult to feel sympathy for the plight of the Jewish people; aside from the well-known atrocities committed against them during WWII, the more “obscure” cruelties, such as those perpetrated by the Russian Empire, for example, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, are mostly topics for academics; in other words, everyone knows places like Auschwitz or even Dachau, but rarely do you ever hear about the Odessa pogroms, which, starting in 1821, occurred on average every twenty years or so until 1905.

In addition, the historical persecution of Jews, which, according to some scholars can not only be traced back to a place in antiquity, the Roman Empire, but also be given a specific date, 38 CE—the advent of the Alexandrian riots, which began under Emperor Caligula when he sent the King of Judea, Herod Agrippa, unannounced to Alexandria, something that angered the Greeks, causing riots to break out. Subsequently, the more brutal 66 CE riots of Alexandria reveal a continuation of tensions between Jewish inhabitants and their neighbors. A primary account by the historian Josephus describes the following: “The Romans showed no mercy to the infants, had no regard for the aged, and went on in the slaughter of persons of every age, until all the place was overflowed with blood, and 50,000 Jews lay dead. And the remainder would have perished as well, had they not put themselves at the mercy of city’s governor, Tiberius Julius Alexander. He felt pity and gave orders to the legionaries to retire.” A gruesome picture and it only gets worse four years later, when Emperor Titus together with that very same governor, Alexander, at his command, go on to capture the city of Jerusalem, totally razing both the city and its Temple (indeed, this is that destruction which many Jews to this day view as the ultimate catastrophe for their people because, for one, unlike the first time under Nebuchadnezzar II, it was never rebuilt, and secondly, in many ways, the Jews once again became an “exiled” people).

Throughout the Middle Ages, things don’t change much for the better. Jewish communities are blamed for the Black Death, accused of witchcraft or poisoning wells, and many innocent people are killed as a result in massacres such as those which occurred in the German city of Erfurt in 1349.

Indeed, right down from antiquity, the Jews have not had the most pleasant historical legacy, and this by any stretch of the imagination. Consequently, the curious question we must ask ourselves, hence, is the following: Why do Jewish authorities in Israel now subject Palestinians to experiences which aren’t radically different from the ones they themselves suffered living under the Roman Empire, and later all across Europe? With poverty rates as high as eighty-five percent in some Palestinian areas, the conditions depicted below not only rival but exceed those of the historical Jewish ghettos.

After the 2007 Battle of Gaza, the narrow stretch of territory with access to the sea, bordering Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, fell under the control of Hamas, which can be considered the more “militant” wing seeking Palestine’s liberation, and things have not improved one way or another; the problem is that, precisely, in some ways, it may not really matter who ultimately governs Gaza—saints or sinners, for lack of better words; the area, although under de facto Palestinian control, remains utterly dependent on Israel. According to a recent article in Al Jazeera, Gaza “relies on Israel for most of its energy needs. Its population of two million currently receives about six hours of electricity followed by a 10-hour power cut.” In addition to this, Israel has exacerbated the situation by closing “its lone commercial crossing with Gaza and banned sea access, shutting down commercial fishing.” Routine actions like this are naturally a response to Hamas’s occasional escalations of violence; these phenomena, however, can likewise be interpreted as a reaction to the frustration of living under Israeli occupation, and it would be rather hard to believe that the only thing Hamas really wants to do is harm innocent Jewish civilians.

Aside from electricity, water sanitation is another major problem. As with electricity, Palestinian water resources are largely controlled by Israel, and, according to a report published in 2017 by the Rand Corporation, “a five-year-old boy died in the Gaza Strip after swimming in seawater polluted with sewage.” Further, the report states that incidents like this, unfortunately, are more common than we want to believe. While the West Bank certainly fares much better in terms of the aforementioned issue, “less than 11 percent of Gaza’s population had access to safe drinking water through the public network,” according to the same report. In addition, the highly-prized Area C of the West Bank, where, according to the UN, Israel retains near exclusive control,” is precisely the place in which most of the “West Bank’s natural resources and open spaces, including the sparsely populated Jordan Valley, are located,” according to a National News article. And yet, according to a 2013 World Bank report, less than “one percent of Area C, which is already built up, is designated by the Israeli authorities for Palestinian use; the remainder is heavily restricted or off-limits to Palestinians, with 68 percent reserved for Israeli settlements, 21 percent for closed military zones, and 9 percent for nature reserves.” Having access to Area C, hence, would perhaps not cure all of Palestine’s economic woes, but it could “expand their struggling economy by a third and halve their budget deficit if Israel allowed them to use the 61 per cent of West Bank territory that is now largely off-limits.” The image below from Gaza summarizes the entire situation quite well.

It can thus be said that the majority of Palestinians living in Gaza and some of those in the West Bank as well have nothing but poisonous water to draw from their wells, literally and metaphorically speaking; this is unacceptable and regardless of which position we may choose to take in this conflict, the dignity of people must be protected, but this is merely the humble opinion of a human rights student.

Being Armenian, I sympathize greatly with Palestine, mainly because of Jerusalem, which, as many know, is divided into four quarters: Jewish, Christian, Armenian, and Muslim (listed in no particular order of preference); appropriately, then, we can say that the city is neither Jewish, nor Christian, nor Armenian, nor Muslim, but it’s all of those things at the same time. In this respect, the easiest way for Christians, let’s say, to best feel the plight of Palestinian people is to be told that Jerusalem is entirely Jewish in character and has no connection to Christianity whatsoever. Just for a second, take a look at this photo—it depicts the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and it has stood there since approximately 335 CE; this, however, isn’t the most fascinating part. In the most unexpected fashion, the main caretakers and guardians of this church, for over a thousand years, have been the Nusseibehs—an aristocratic family of neither Christian, nor Jewish origin, but, followers of Islam, capable of tracing their roots back to Jerusalem more than 1,300 years, all the way to the prophet Muhammad, that is. As you may have noticed by now, Jerusalem is complex, and it belongs to everyone who has a genuine claim.

It’s infuriating, hence, to hear Israel tell not only Palestinians but also the entire world exactly the opposite—indirectly for years and now overtly with the 2018 Nation State Law, that Israel is a country “that is different from all others in one way, that it is the nation-state of the Jewish people.” And yet, even the most ignorant simpleton strolling through Jerusalem’s Armenian or Muslim quarter will somehow sense that Israel isn’t just the nation-state of the Jewish people. For thousands of years, different people have inhabited the Holy Land—some are still there while others are gone—and telling Palestinians that Israel is a Jewish state is precisely like telling me, an Armenian, for example, that I have absolutely no connection to Jerusalem, even though there’s a quarter there. A well-written Reuters article from ten or so years ago describes how with gradual measures such as refusal of identity cards and withdrawal of residence rights, Israel is slowly trying to edge out its Armenian presence as well.

The 1980 Jerusalem Law, which is nothing but a covert guise for East Jerusalem’s annexation—utterly and totally unrecognized by the UN—is an ideology that not just politicians hold in high regard. Initially-innocent-looking, well-meaning, but really rather ridiculous articles such as this one from 1975, by what must’ve been, and probably still is (if alive) a disgruntled rabbi by the name of Yakov Goldman have attempted to use words instead of missiles or rather a missile of words to achieve their political objectives.

Ah, fascinating! Indeed, quite fascinating, Rabbi Goldman. So, you’re telling me that if other people live in the Armenian Quarter and we call it the Armenian Quarter that, somehow, is a travesty? Well, if that’s the case, why don’t we go ahead and stop calling Jerusalem a Jewish city, and, while we’re at it, let’s also stop pretending that Israel is a Jewish state, because, clearly, the Palestinians have and continue to live there, and if, by God Almighty, it has to have a name, as you’ve so correctly pointed out, let’s find a different moniker for your state—isn’t that a more wonderful suggestion? I think so.

Both the American historian David Howard-Pitney and US President Barack Obama (two figures whose level of fame is diametrically opposed—nothing we should hold against one or the other) believe that history is a burden. “For both of them,” according to Jennifer Mercieca and Justin S. Vaughn, authors of The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations, “it was as much a burden foisted upon them by tradition as one taken up by choice. And for both of them, this burden inspired action. Whether it is the divine history of the Exodus or the divinized history of the Founders, the memory of the past functions as a goad to social action, a profound investment of political agency.” History, in this sense, has been precisely that burden for both the Israelis and Palestinians; for the former, the Holocaust was and continues to be viewed as a great tragedy and yet it was exactly this event which at once and finally convinced later Zionists of the key tenet in Herzl’s philosophy—that anti-Semitism will always exist and, thus, the only resolution is a Jewish state, which was eventually formed.

For Palestinians—a people fortunate enough never to have experienced the horrors equivalent to such destruction—the burden of history has paradoxically been far less kind than it has to the Jewish people; as of today, they’re individuals of a nation without a state living under the occupation of a nation who for the longest time didn’t have a state themselves, but were forced to create one precisely on those territories which the current people without a state had historically inhabited, and the reason for the creation of this state had to do with the persistent historical persecution of those people who had lacked statehood before but are now inhabiting precisely those territories on which the current people without a state feel they have a right to establish their own.

It’s all very complex and the history isn’t something that will be dealt with here, but what isn’t complicated at all is something I’ve not only hinted at but have said directly: Human beings deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and Israel, being the occupying power, has largely not lived up to those ideals. Problems largely stem from Israel’s aggressive expansionist and annexation policies, most of which, if not all, are considered illegal under international law. To be fair, as part of the peace plan with Egypt in 1979, along with agreements in the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israel did dismantle many of the settlements in Palestinian territories, but since then, it has largely continued its previous modus operandi of encroaching on lands which aren’t meant for them. When Israel annexed the Golan Heights (territory internationally recognized as part of Syria) only two years later, along with Trump’s subsequent recognition of that annexation in 2019, it was under the guise of providing a safety buffer for its actual borders, but, in reality, such encroachments are merely strategies to give Israel a more Jewish character; tactics like this may seem appealing in the short-run, but given that no nation state is really composed of one homogenous population, the subjugation and repression of minority voices is always bound to backfire, and, indeed it has.

Not only have the decisions of Israel and Trump led to an escalation in the conflict, but they have also seriously crippled whatever diplomatic channels may have existed in helping to foster dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017 has formally brought an end to what was achieved during the Oslo Accords in 1993—the PLO’s recognition of Israel and its right to exist, along with Israel’s recognition of the PLO as the sole voice of the Palestinian people. Since those most recent events two and four years ago, respectively, the PLO has withdrawn its recognition of Israel and cut ties with the US; in addition, Palestine threatens to sever relations with all those nations which move their embassies to Jerusalem, a move which could potentially further isolate Palestine, as some US allies will invariably choose to go ahead anyways.

Most news outlets, naturally, portray the conflict with broad brushstrokes—Palestinian “terrorists” launch rockets from Gaza and Israeli “forces” defend against this “aggression.” No subtlety, little historical awareness, and even less understanding, in many ways, also of current events—strangely. For some odd reason or other, no one is really quick to point out that Netanyahu’s constant, and, more unfortunately, blatant disregard of international law is a type of terrorism—indeed, there are no guns or rockets fired, but people’s lives are uprooted and metaphorically disfigured forever. Why should Palestinian residents freely give up their homes to illegal Jewish settlers in Sheikh Jarrah, for example? In addition, the (not) good PM’s pledge to annex all Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territories have led a major Jewish newspaper to label him the “undertaker of the two-state solution.”

It’s no secret that this so-called funeral director for all non-Israeli ambitions has repeatedly stated, according to The Guardian, that no Palestinian state will ever come into existence so long as he’s in power; this, ladies and gentlemen, is terrorism in its most white-collar form, and yet the only thing that most major credible news outlets besides Al Jazeera choose to focus on are the horrible actions of perhaps some frustrated Palestinian “terrorists” in Gaza who’ve somehow managed to get a rocket past Israel’s incredibly sophisticated air defense system (the notorious Iron Dome in service since 2011); when the rockets, however, start flying the other way—to a place which cannot shoot down 90 percent of trajectories coming their way, it’s all for the sake of defending the state, all because Palestinians simply don’t have one, and, thus, have nothing worth defending.

In response to a friend’s despair that General Burgoyne had been defeated at Saratoga, which effectively brought about the end of British ambitions in Colonial America, Adam Smith said the following: “Be assured, young friend, that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” The quote has been interpreted in a number of ways—from strong countries can cope with poor policies to it takes a whole lot of work (in this case bungling) for political leaders to bring down a country which is prosperous and powerful. Despite what Smith may or may not have meant, I prefer the following interpretation: For a new nation to rise, it must first be ruined in order to be truly born anew. It’s hard to deny that Israel has done anything but bring Palestine to that brink. If Palestinians can hang on long enough, I truly believe that like all people who’ve ever wanted to be free, they may not get everything they wanted, but they will eventually find their freedom.

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.