Every work of art is the child of its age and, in many cases, the mother of our emotions. It follows that each period of culture produces an art of its own which can never be repeated. (Kandinsky) 



Avant-Garde is an important and much used term in the history of art and literature. "It clearly has a military origin ('advance guard') and, as applied to art and literature, denotes exploration, pathfinding, innovation and invention, something new, something advanced (ahead of its time) and revolutionary" (Cuddon 68).

     In 1845, Gabriel-Désiré Laverdant published a work called De la Mission de l'Art et du Rôle des Artistes. In it he wrote:


Art, the expression of the society, manifests, in its highest soaring, the most advanced social tendencies: it is the forerunner and the revealer. Therefore, to know whether art worthily fulfils its proper mission as initiator, whether the artist is truly of the avant-garde, one must know where Humanity is going, what the destiny of the human race is… (Quoted in Cuddon 68)


Cuddon continues that in 1878 Bakunin founded and published for a short time a periodical devoted to political excitement called L'Avant-garde. Even at this period it is unusual to find the term applied to art and literature alone. Baudelaire deals with it with scorn. In his personal notebook, Mon cæur mis à nu, he refers to 'les littérateurs d'avant-garde', and elsewhere he speaks of 'la presse militante' and 'la literature militante'. He is referring to radical writers, to writers of the political Left.

     During the last quarter of the 19th century, the term and the concept appear in both cultural and political contexts. Gradually the cultural-artistic meaning displaced the socio-political meaning. For a long time it has been commonplace to refer to avant-garde art or literature. Nowadays we are accustomed to think of the symbolist poets Valerine, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé as the first members of the avant-garde; likewise the playwrights of the Theatre of the Absurd and the novelists like Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor, Nathalie Sarraute.

     But M. H. Abrams in his famous book A Glossary of Literary Terms, as defining and describing Modernism and Postmodernism, refers to avant-garde as follows:


A prominent feature of modernism is the phenomenon called the avant-garde (a French military: "advance-guard"); that is, a small, self-conscious group of artists and authors who deliberately undertake, in Ezra Pound's phrase, to "make it new." By violating the accepted conventions and properties, not only of art but of social discourse, they set out to create ever-new artistic forms and styles and to introduce hitherto neglected, and sometimes forbidden, subject matter. Frequently, avant-garde artists represent themselves as "alienated" from the established order, against which they assert their own autonomy; a prominent aim is to shock the sensibilities of the conventional reader and to challenge the norms and pities of the dominant bourgeois culture. (Abrams 176)


     Bay-Cheng (2004) believes that avant-garde drama, cinema, and queerness all begin around 1895. Within one year, Alfred Jarry wrote and later performed probably the first avant-garde play, Ubu Roi (1896); the Lumière brothers produced their first—and the first—film, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895); and Oscar Wilde’s highly publicized trials of 1895 brought into public consciousness the concept of homosexuality as an identity. These three events resulted from an expanding modernity that directly contradicted the late nineteenth-century belief in rationalism and science, often exhibited dramatically in the form of the well-made play. If late nineteenth-century realism and naturalism emerged as a dramatic reply to such scientific "certainties" as Auguste Comte’s positivism, Karl Marx’s theory of capitalistic exploitation, Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, then early twentieth century avant-garde drama and film was founded on such theories of "unpredictability" and "chaos" as Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Albert Einstein’s relativity, and Georg Simmel’s fragmentation of perception in the urban environment (Bay-Cheng 4).

     Bay-Cheng then continues that there are two general elements present in all dramatic Avant-Garde works. The first element present in nearly all products of the avant-garde is its negation of organized religion and belief in God. As Jacques Derrida writes in his analysis of Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, a key reference point for much of the avant-garde theater:


                                       The theater of cruelty expulses God from the stage. It does not put a new atheist discourse on stage, or give atheism a platform, or give over theatrical space to a philosophizing logic that would once more, to our great lassitude, proclaim the death of God. The theatrical piece of cruelty, in its action and structure, inhabits or rather produces a nontheological space. (Quoted in Bay-Cheng 8)


     The second unifying aspect of avant-garde drama is its nonrepresentational use of language. As Christopher Innes notes in his essay "Text/ Pre-Text/Pretext: The Language of Avant-Garde Experiment," "The search for a new form of theater language can be seen as one of the defining elements of the theatrical avant-garde as a whole" (Quoted in Bay-Cheng, 9). In his overview of some of the great performances of the American avant-garde in the 1960s, Innes declares that such performances present the limits of a purely physical theater accurately through their reliance on scripts and the centrality of text. Erika Fischer-Lichte further defines this "new form of theater language" in her The Avant-Garde and the Semiotics of the Antitextual Gesture. She lists the criteria of avant-garde language as follows:


1. It lacks a stable collection of signs.

2. The mixture of elements used as signs results from rhythmic concepts.

3. The elements that are used as theatrical signs lack an independent semantic

    dimension, that is, they bring no previously established meaning into production.

    They are in a sense floating signifiers, to which signifieds can be attributed to

     internal and external — contextualization (Bay-Cheng 9).


     Because of these two important elements — the omission of God and the omission of words as representational signifiers — the avant-garde as a concept can be regarded, among other things, nonreproductive. By dismissing belief in a divine creator, avant-garde drama breaks the fundamental relationship between humanity and a Judeo-Christian God — that is, the idea that man is made in God's image. Consequently, humanity is no longer the offspring of a generous patriarchal figure, obedient to His will. It is this loss, represented most famously by Friedrich Nietzsche's "God is dead," that the theories of Marx, Freud, and Darwin try to make up for with their entirely causal explanations of the world's and humankind's secular origin, development, and destiny. Human psychology and behavior cannot be fully comprehended because the human mind does not always produce predictable emotional responses and behaviors, but instead, at times, human beings appear to act and react without reason. With cause and effect, reason, and scientific understanding thus challenged, the avant-garde theater was faced with representing a chaotic and incomprehensible universe in which humanity could find no direction. Language itself could no longer adequately represent the world of objective reality, nor, as a communication device, could it enable human beings to transcend their own existential isolation. Not only had humanity lost faith in its divine origins and secular reasoning, but it had also lost faith in its linguistic ability to describe those twin losses.

     Given this perspective, realistic representation was considered disgusting to the artists of the avant-garde, resulting in the obvious violation of basic principles of conventional drama and speech and the appearance of anti-textualism. In response to the radical changes in perception at the end of the nineteenth century, artists of the avant-garde, most especially the Dadaists, proclaimed themselves "anti-art", and embraced ideals of destruction and negation as the principles of their movement.

     According to R. M. Berry, the philosopher Stanley Cavell has noted three confusions endemic to the concept of avant-garde. First is its tendency to overemphasize art's future at the expense of its past, leaving present work ungrounded. The result of this lopsidedness is an impression that contemporary art bears no relation, or only an arbitrary one, to those historic achievements that have given rise both to art's significance and to its problems. We could speak of this first confusion as the avant-garde's misrepresenting possibility as indeterminacy, its misinterpretation of art's unforeclosable future as a barrier against its historical specificity, its present fix. A second confusion has to do with the avant-garde's uncritical enthusiasm for any and everything that calls itself innovative, regardless of an "innovation's" bareness, irrelevance, or just plain stupidity. Cavell speaks of this tendency as the avant-garde's "promiscuous attention" to newness, a phrase intended to suggest both indiscriminate coupling and infidelity. The idea is that the avant-garde habitually combines novelty with change, imagining that artistic advance results from mere unconventionality, from difference as such. Call this the "farther out than thou" syndrome. And the third confusion is a tendency, already implicit in the avant-garde's military metaphor, to represent artistic advances as historical or political advances, as though significant changes in the forms of art could be confirmed by their political effectiveness. Although Cavell wants to keep open the question of art's relation to politics, not to imply that there is no relation, he means here to criticize the habit, so characteristic of 20th century avant-gardes, of underestimating the real differences between artistic practice and serious political action. How to characterize this last confusion is difficult, since we're still in it, but it has something to do with art's paradoxical autonomy, with the political significance of art's irreducibility to political significance. Taken together these confusions emphasize the avant-garde's tendency to turn on itself, to represent the historical conditions of art as mere obstacles, and thus to undermine those problematic continuities on which, not just mainstream art, but even revolutionary art, depends.    

     In her 1926 lecture, "Composition as Explanation," Gertrude Stein offers an account of historical change that, while insisting on the necessity for advances in art, seems to avoid Cavell's critique. Her originality stems from two ideas, both involving what she calls "time-sense." First is her idea that the goal of any advance is not the future but the present. That is, every generation lives instinctively and unself-consciously several generations behind itself, in a kind of anachronistic hybridity, preoccupied with earlier emotions, reflexes, styles, and concepts, and discovering its own time only afterwards, in narrating it. Her paradigm of this belatedness is World War I, which she says the generals imagined as "a nineteenth century war … to be fought with twentieth century weapons," a time lag that suppressed modern warfare until too late, after the carnage had forced contemporaneity on it. Part of what Stein wants from this example is the contrast between the academic and the modern, a contrast she will develop later as something "prepared" versus something "that decides how it is to be when it is to be done." But more immediately she wants to deepen the problem of time itself.

     For Stein, the present is never what the present naturally wants. On the contrary, wherever the present achieves expression, those living in it will find it annoying, irritating, unnatural, and ugly. Consequently, art cannot be made present by accommodating it to popular styles or dominant ideas, and art's motivation to become present has nothing to do with striving after novelty. Instead, changes in art occur because in some confusing but life-determining way, they already have occurred, are already present, inescapably so, even when repudiated. Stein's idea is that what changes from one generation to the next is a "form", not a content, what she calls "composition," and although each generation's composition controls its consciousness absolutely, i.e., "makes what those who describe it make of it," it does not itself readily submit to consciousness, to description. It is as though everyone can feel how out of synch things are, can recognize the obsolescence of what our leaders, parents, peers have to say, but as soon as anyone tries to say what is out of synch, he or she becomes obsolete too. Art's problem then is to acknowledge something as inescapable as an established enemy but that resists our direct advance as forcefully as a machine gun. As Stein says, "No one is ahead of his time," one of several remarks meant to remove our confidence that we know what she is talking about. The avant-garde — in Stein's sense — is merely art's struggle for its time, for embodiment of those formative but unrepresentable conditions on which art's survival, and possibly everyone else's survival too, depends.

     But Stein's second idea seems to complicate, if not undo, this first one. Her word "composition" is meant to set up an analogy between the action of history and the activity of painters, writers, and musicians, the point being that the modern work is one that incorporates this new "time-sense," the consciousness of the present, into itself. However, when Stein tries to explain what this change means concretely, she comes out with a shocking series of redundancies: "a thing made by being made," "what is seen when it seems to be being seen", "the thing seen by every one living in the living they are doing", and most dizzyingly, "the composing of the composition that at the time they are living is the composition of the time in which they are living." Despite their circularity, these formulations seem to the present researcher uncommonly precise. What they all share is a suggestion of something already in existence that is the means by which it is itself brought into existence. The idea seems to be that what has always existed unrecognized in art — i.e., the creative power of presentness — is in the modern work, not just what is recognized, but what actually does the work of art, what makes art specifically by being recognized. This is what her phrase, "a thing made by being made," tries to bring out. But now everything has gotten turned around, since presentness no longer seems limited to the present. It is as if modern art were not just the latest change in art, say, the form of Stein's own generation, but were instead a change of a wholly different order, one that has revealed something about all art. That this is, in fact, Stein's idea is indicated by her lecture's first sentence, which insists on a historical changelessness underlying changes in compositions, as well as by her later, more paradoxical insistence that what results from incorporating the new time-sense is not a historical document but something timeless, a classic. It is as though what Stein's generation needed to do to make art was to find out for the first time what art was. In other words, the whole point of acknowledging the present for Stein is to disclose what, once laid bare, seems always to have existed. When this happens, art happens. Understood in this sense, the avant-garde is not just the struggle for its time. It is the struggle in its time for something lost or forgotten or repressed by its time. Stein's term, both for this struggle and for its object, is "a continuous present."

     Despite the difficulty of making these ideas clear, the present researcher thinks Stein's account of artistic advance is basically right. If literature is to exist in the present, then it must be discovered there. This is, the researcher believes, what the idea of an avant-garde meant for Stein's generation and what the researcher believes it still means, even if ignored. To write after modernism, not before, is to acknowledge modernism's discovery of this necessity of discovery as such. On the one hand, this implies that nothing already known about forms of writing can count as a guide for producing novels and poems now. What can be taught in creative writing workshops or literature courses — that is, what we are presently prepared to recognize as fiction or poetry — constitutes the problem to be overcome, hence must be recognized. But the purpose of recognizing the already known is to escape it. Its inadequacy, even impertinence, to the present task seems to me what is right about modernism's insistence on newness, innovation, experiment. On the other hand, this impertinence of the already known does not mean that novels and poetry must be, or even can be, created directly from present experience. On the contrary, it means that present experience will be as elusive, as much a reproduction of the already known, of past experience, as poetry and fiction, and for the same reasons. To insist that literature must now be discovered means that, far from creating poems and fiction ex nihilo, from present absence, literature can only be created — as baffling as this sounds —from literature, that is, from something always already in existence, underlying in misunderstood and half-glimpsed ways every writing. This is what Stein's "continuous present" tries to name. If none of this makes much sense, that may be because, prior to its discovery in present work, literature never does make much sense. Between what is already known and what demands recognition is always a gap. Or stated in a sentence, after modernism, literature ceases to exist as history and begin to exist as a question.


Works Cited


Abrams, M. H., and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Boston:

     Thomson Wadsworth, 2005.


Bay-Cheng, Sarah. Mama Dada: Gertrude Stein's Avant-Garde Theater. New York &

     London: Routledge, 2004.


Berry, R. M. http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/endconstruction/AVAnt


Cuddon, J. A. Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. London: Penguin

     Books, 1999.

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"Counting Small-Boned Bodies"

Robert Bly


Let's count the bodies over again.

If we could only make the bodies smaller,
The size of skulls,
We could make a whole plain white with skulls in the moonlight!

If we could only make the bodies smaller,
Maybe we could get
A whole year's kill in front of us on a desk!

If we could only make the bodies smaller,
We could fit
A body into a finger-ring, for a keepsake forever.








"Counting Small-Boned Bodies" is a short poem of ten lines and, as its title suggests, plays upon official body counts of dead Vietnamese soldiers. The poem's first line, "Let's count the bodies over again," is followed by three tercets, each of which begins with the same line: "If we could only make the bodies smaller". That condition granted, Bly postulates three successive images: a plain of skulls in the moonlight, the bodies "in front of us on a desk," and a body fit into a finger ring which would be, in the poem's last words, "a keepsake forever". One notes in this that Bly uses imagery not unlike that of the pre-Vietnam poems, especially in the image of the moonlit plain. In fact, that very image functions here ironically as the reader perceives that the romantic setting is occupied by the skulls. Bly's method consequently represents an important modification in the use of the Emotive Imagination. The lyricism that attends the natural world has become an ironic lyricism attending horrible reversals of the natural world. The reader, instead of drifting tranquilly inward and toward his own private world, is thrust outward upon the abuses of the public world. The poem does not end in reconciliation or a sense of moral advance; rather, it concludes upon a note of accusation and a sense of moral retrogression.

     One notices first of all how Bly's sense of collective consciousness allows him readily to assume the voice of a whole culture, and his secure sense of values justifies a biting criticism of that culture, not only for its actions (as in Lowell) but for the modes of consciousness that support those actions. Three specific aspects of the public consciousness are dramatized in the poem. First Bly plays on the idea that counting, the manipulation of elements in the outer world, can ever be an adequate measure of events (the history of body counts provides adequate empirical data to support Bly here). Counting then leads to a second empty form of public measurement: the poem's tone and grammatical mood express a technological fantasy inspired by the false language of advertising. Finally, the concluding line allies the violence of war with perverted and simplified visions of love. It establishes and casts back over the rest of the poem a purposive role for the irony as intensifying the gap between public desire and the lack of a true inwardness that might define and direct that desire. These distortions then combine to present an inverted version of Bly's typical concentrative movement. The more compressed the bodies become the more the reader approaches the ring, the central unifying symbol of the horror involved in this exercise of perverted love. And the horror is deepened by the fact that advertising's words for this particular union are literally true, though of course in an unexpected sense: those dead bodies will remain intimately involved with our lives for a terribly long time.

     Bly read "Counting Small-Boned Bodies" across the country during and since the Vietnam years, often wearing a mask evoking patriarchal cruelty. In 1970, Bly told Gregory Fitz Gerald and William Heyen that the poem "was written after hearing, on radio and television, Pentagon 'counts' of North Vietnamese bodies found". The poem is Bly's response to such news accounts: "One repulsive novelty of this war is the daily body count. We count up the small-boned bodies like quails on a gun-shoot. The military people would feel better if the bodies were smaller, maybe we could get a whole year's kill in front of us on a desk".

     Bly's poetic sentiment duplicates his prose description. The poetic impact is great because of its Swiftean portrait of the grim performance of Americans in Vietnam. In "Counting Small-Boned Bodies," Bly takes the historical and metaphysical moment through his portrayal of a carnal fetish. From the depth of pain, Bly constructs a poem that rises through a string of body images that decrease in size in each stanza.

     The horror Bly felt at the daily body count led him to this vividly moving irony of the decreasing size of bodies becoming suitable for war trinkets. The tone of the poem here can never be confused. Despite its sarcastic presentation, the poem releases naked emotion, rage at the sterile response of a middle class to the slaughter of a nation. Delving beneath both the manifest and the personal, Bly depicts the horrific psychological context of sadistic executioners making a booty of the annihilated.

     The reference is to one of the peculiarities of the Vietnam period: body counts, reported routinely on the evening news. Again creating a mask, Bly imagines the body-counter himself, who turns out to be a rather cheerful being who sits at a desk and has a taste for scenic vistas, efficiency, technical ingenuity, and expensive trinkets. He is, in short, a citizen of a modern business-dominated, technological, affluent society. The poem manipulates scale and distance with great effectiveness. In his mania for making the bodies smaller — their shrinking suggests their reality receding further and further away — the speaker does not seem to notice or care that all the while they are moving closer to him. The bodies — never regarded as human from the outset—move in three dream-like steps in toward him, from the moon-lit plain to the desk to the ring. The implication is clear, and contained perfectly within the images and their movement: when one succeeds this well in distancing the suffering and death of other human beings, in making them smaller and smaller, one ends up engaged to death itself. The final phrase plays on a well-known advertising slogan, but in this context it takes on a terrible psychological meaning.

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The aim of this essay is to investigate the traces of metafiction in Thomas Pynchon's novel The Crying of Love 49. Metafiction is a term given to "fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality" (Waugh 2). Such writing examines the fundamental structures of narrative fiction and also explores the possible fictionality of the world outside the literary fictional text. Linda Hutcheon (1991) refers to metafiction as "fiction about fiction — that is, fiction that includes within itself a commentary on its own narrative and/or linguistic identity" (1). Waugh also defines three framing devices in metafiction: a) "stories within stories"; b) "characters reading about their own fictional lives"; c) "self-consuming worlds or mutually contradictory situations" (30). McHale considers the first group as a subcategory of "Chinese-box worlds" and is based on the formula of a "recursive structures" (McHale 112). Trompe-l' oeil, meaning 'eye-deceiving' is another metafictional strategy which is related to the idea of ontology. McHale defines it as "deliberately misleading the reader into regarding an embedded, secondary world as the primary" (McHale 115).

     Regarding the above theories, this novel itself is a means of communication between reality and fiction that will prove ultimately baffling to the main character and reader. Pynchon designed The Crying of Lot 49 so that there would be two levels of observation: that of the characters such as our own Oedipa Maas, whose world is limited to the text, and that of the reader, who looks at the world from outside it but who is also affected by his relationship to that world. Both the reader and the characters have the same problems observing the chaos around them. The protagonist in the novel, Oedipa, like Pynchon's audience, is forced to either involve herself in the interpreting of clues or not participate at all. Oedipa's purpose, besides executing a will, is finding meaning in a life dominated by assaults on people's perceptions through drugs, sex and television. The reader's role is also one of interpreting countless symbols and metaphors to arrive at a meaning.

     In terms of both the differences inherent in San Narcisco and Pynchon's writing, there is a layering of superficiality through which one must penetrate in order to get to real meaning. The "nothing was happening" declaration is particularly troubling because it leads us to believe that the chaotic events that follow it are merely dreamed up in Oedipa's mind. Thus, we see an external world of peace that is mentally blocked out by a woman whose overactive mind leads her to all sorts of wild speculations and imaginings. There are always more layers to the complex plot, and Oedipa will find that each time she strips away a mysterious layer; it only opens up more possibilities and more sub-mysteries to be solved, there are always deeper layers to be uncovered. These problems with hallucination highlight the much more pressing problem of the ability to understand what is real and imagined. The novel suggests that the human mind has an extraordinary ability to create situations that seem so real as to be indistinguishable from truly external events.

     One of the most effective literary techniques Pynchon uses to involve the reader in his fictional world is his use of details. The purpose of these details is to overlap the reader's world with the fictional one. Pynchon flirts with the reader. He allows the reader to see more of his world than any of his other characters can. Pynchon wants to tempt the reader into the character's search for meaning. Furthermore, the alternations of fact with fiction, such as the description of the historical basis of the Peter Pinguid Society, confuse the reader to such an extent that he is forced to rely upon Oedipa to decipher reality from illusion. Pynchon even denies the reader and Oedipa time to sort out the information by moving rapidly to the next event. The blending of authenticity with fiction introduces an epistemological aspect to Pynchon's work. Pynchon wants the reader to recognize and plunge into the shaded area between fiction and reality. Pierce and Pynchon tell Oedipa and the reader, respectively, that we do not know much for certain. In Pynchon's comical world, our senses deceive us, ruling out an Empirical solution to the epistemological question. What seems rational really is not, making a rationalist solution unacceptable. By ruling out a basis for an epistemological interpretation outside the text, Pynchon commands the audience to accept Oedipa as its interpreter.

     In fact, a mystery novel like The Crying of Love 49 is a very basic meta-novel (metafiction). The reader construes a suspect before the author reveals it to him. In our case, we think that events, places and names connect, but we are never sure until Pynchon confirms it for us. There are many metaphors that describe the relationship between the author and reader in Lot 49. The name Oedipa Maas evokes the famous Greek riddle-solver Oedipus, whose quest to interpret the Delphic prophecies leads to his downfall. Pynchon gives us two options when presenting metaphors like the Oedipus: either they are patterns for interpreting the meaning of Lot 49, or they are unclear, deceptive invitations for interpretations, purposely made up by the author.

     The most ingenious method of involving the reader in the novel in Lot 49 is the mock-Jacobean drama The Courier's Tragedy. Pynchon compares Oedipa witnessing the play to the reader apprehending the novel. For example, Pynchon switches from Jacobean vocabulary to modern phrases: "While a battle rages in the streets outside the palace, Pasquale is locked up in his patrician hothouse, holding an orgy". This distances the reader from the play, similar to Oedipa's role as a confused onlooker, thereby giving Oedipa and us a false sense of security. We soon find elements of The Courier's Tragedy almost in all subsequent events of the novel. Pynchon, via Driblette, speaks to the reader: "You guys, you're like the Puritans about the Bible. So hung up with words, words". This is not a warning to the reader and Oedipa against interpretation. Instead, it is a warning to the reader and Oedipa of the addictive nature of their respective searches (self-conscious fiction). Oedipa's search for the original version of The Courier's Tragedy, which is obstructed by her inability to separate her play from its author, editor or producer, is an exaggerated metaphor of the reader's troubles in making sense of the novel.

     The Crying of Lot 49 is a detective story, but the puzzle it tries to solve, like culture, which constantly emerges out of itself, is infinite. And there is no answer to infinity, there is only voyage (play). In trying to create order, Oedipa alienates herself from the very world she is trying to organize. As the novel demonstrates in the Tristero conspiracy Oedipa vainly tries to solve, in the ending that is no standard ending at all, and within the larger structures of its own self-abnegating language and style, there can be no final answer, no true ending, ever.




Works Cited:


Hutcheon, Linda. Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox. London: Routledge, 1991.


---. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. London: Routledge, 1996.


McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. London: Routledge, 1999.


Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction. New York: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1984.



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   Anthony Hecht


In Italy, where this sort of thing can occur,
I had a vision once - though you understand
It was nothing at all like Dante's, or the visions of saints,
And perhaps not a vision at all. I was with some friends,
Picking my way through a warm sunlit piazza
In the early morning. A clear fretwork of shadows
From huge umbrellas littered the pavement and made
A sort of lucent shallows in which was moored
A small navy of carts. Books, coins, old maps,
Cheap landscapes and ugly religious prints
Were all on sale. The colors and noise
Like the flying hands were gestures of exultation,
So that even the bargaining
Rose to the ear like a voluble godliness.
And then, where it happened, the noises suddenly stopped,
And it got darker; pushcarts and people dissolved
And even the great Farnese Palace itself
Was gone, for all its marble; in its place
Was a hill, mole-colored and bare. It was very cold,
Close to freezing, with a promise of snow.
The trees were like old ironwork gathered for scrap
Outside a factory wall. There was no wind,
And the only sound for a while was the little click
Of ice as it broke in the mud under my feet.
I saw a piece of ribbon snagged on a hedge,
But no other sign of life. And then I heard
What seemed the crack of a rifle. A hunter, I guessed;
At least I was not alone. But just after that
Came the soft and papery crash
Of a great branch somewhere unseen falling to earth.

And that was all, except for the cold and silence
That promised to last forever, like the hill.

Then prices came through, and fingers, and I was restored
To the sunlight and my friends. But for more than a week
I was scared by the plain bitterness of what I had seen.
All this happened about ten years ago,
And it hasn't troubled me since, but at last, today,
I remembered that hill; it lies just to the left
Of the road north of Poughkeepsie; and as a boy
I stood before it for hours in wintertime.




"A Hill" begins offhandedly in the voice of a cheerful skeptic who prepares us for, and simultaneously denies, the surprises that follow: "In Italy, where this sort of thing can occur, / I had a vision once—though you understand / It was nothing at all like Dante's, or the visions of saints, / And perhaps not a vision at all." The figure of occupatio, the age-old rhetorical trick of having things two ways at once (of course we're now prepared to think of Dante and saints, to look for correspondences, even negative ones), opens to a morning scene in Rome when, for a moment, the speaker loses consciousness of his immediate environment, and a Wordsworthian spot of time returns, him to a winter's scene, in childhood, on a hill where he heard


What seemed the crack of a rifle. A hunter, I guessed;
At least I was not alone. But just after that
Came the soft and papery crash
Of a great branch somewhere unseen falling to earth.

And that was all, except for the cold and silence
That promised to last forever, like the hill.


     The understated horror perhaps owes something to comparable moments in Frost ("The Most of It," "An Old Man's Winter's Night "). One never learns what exactly happened there, nor of course can the adult decide why the scene should have held him in its grip both at the time and thereafter. Restored to his Italian setting (almost immediately, one infers), he is nevertheless haunted by what Wordsworth called "a dim and undetermined sense / Of unknown modes of being; o'er my thoughts / There hung a darkness, call it solitude, / Or blank desertion" (The Prelude).

     Hecht's poetry, whether deliberately spine-tingling, as here, or more graphically lurid, is permeated by Wordsworthian "visionary dreariness." Frightened, temporarily dazed, the adult speaker of "A Hill" extends the effect of his vision both forward (to a "today" ten years after the Roman shock) and backward (to the aftermath in childhood of the original event):


                                for more than a week
I was scared by the plain bitterness of what I had seen.
All this happened about ten years ago,
And it hasn't troubled me since, but at last, today,
I remembered that hill; it lies just to the left
Of the road north of Poughkeepsie; and as a boy
I stood before it for hours in wintertime.


Such easy five-stressed lines, covering an unspecified depth of horror, set the stage for the more grimly sadistic poems that follow. Like Wordsworth, Hecht is bent upon the preservation of spots of time and upon a demonstration of the tricks and sleights of memory; his didactic program also involves nothing less than an exploration of the inherent evil in humans. He gives Wordsworth's themes but through characters who would be at home in Browning, and in the technique and language of modern America.

     The poem itself is about an involuntary return to a fearful kind of beginning, a scene of "plain bitterness" that has inscribed itself on the mind with something close to infernal insistence. What is interesting here is that this early scene disrupts not only the subsequent conscious mind but also the very network of coded phenomena—friendship, urban architecture, markets of exchange, the accumulations of conventional currencies and representations—that we have come to associate with the bonds and matrices of the cultured self. Against this network, and at the very moment when the civilized scene appears to hold out "gestures of exultation" or intimations of "godliness" (for this poem, too, enacts a kind of fall), an even more compelling imperative forces itself upon the mind. The bonds of artifice or social life are thus disrupted by a yet more severe bondage to a scene of desolation encrypted so deeply in the psyche that its first surfacing is not even recognized as an actual recollection. If we have come to notice the dispossession associated with obedience to the forms of culture and society, "A Hill" portrays a far more frightening and antithetical dispossession—a seizure by the returning perception of a scene of such menacing blankness that it threatens to rip apart those very fabrics of consciousness, society, or art that might have been designed in part to cover its adversarial reality.

     Yet the scene is eventually recognized, and it is given both its moment in the time of childhood and its geographical place. The mind also comes to repossess a portion of its own experience, however devastating. Furthermore, there is an undeniable empowerment in the very ability to sweep away the entire realm of Roman piazza and marble palace and to confront us so immediately with their drastic replacement. At the beginning of his poem, the poet thus signals one of his powers as being that of making such radical substitutions or regressions, suggesting perhaps that his art will return to the unadorned grounds preceding those of art. Henceforth, no marble palaces will be allowed to exist without the eclipsing awareness of an unaccommodatingly bare hill. No social or aesthetic forms will be free from personal recognitions of desolation.

     Re-inaugurating an earlier threshold experience, the poem thus acts as a threshold itself: enter this book, recognize this bare hill, pass over the mental boundaries such a crossing implies. At the same time, the poem performs an act of apparent self-grounding (however abysmal), both in returning to a childhood scene and in establishing the hill as a landmark figure for the radically subversive and self-isolating powers of the poet's mind. That such an act should be involuntarily suffered as much as it is performed, and that the recognition of one's own powers of displacement should be bound up in obedience to a psychological imperative—this is of course the kind of paradox that Hecht is inviting us to explore.

     Although the ritualistic elements of "A Hill" should already be clear, it may be worth pausing to emphasize their presence, however compressed and internalized. The most obvious, particularly for an opening poem, would be an initiatory rite of passage in which an individual is withdrawn from society, placed in an isolating (and often darkened) scene of instruction, and then "restored / To the sunlight and [his] friends." A society would thereby control a dangerously liminal phase of the individual's transition, while also allowing the initiate to learn certain truths that may otherwise be occulted by social life. Since this poem includes no ushering or supervision within the rite, no real sense of a reinvigorated relationship between individual and society, and only a ravaging scene of dubious and solitary instruction, we see at once that its ritual elements may be anti-types as much as types, although their presence certainly gives a formal gravity and a more than personal depth to the described experience.

     Similarly, although there is again a terrifying elision of all that might otherwise graduate the procession, we might see elements of a ritual revisitation, by which an individual leaves his given surroundings in order to revisit a prior scene of crucial importance. Why this particular site holds such force is left implicit in the poem—indeed the unassimilated and uninterpretable barrenness contributes most of the hill's power. This tremendous power of negation even tends to eclipse our speculations on the psychological properties of landscape, or on the tomblike quality of an isolated hill in whose presence this revisitation might distantly resemble the practice of returning to a burial site in order to erect or unveil a memorial. We are not certain of anyone or anything having been buried here, however metaphorically. Perhaps the hill marks the kind of obscured, unconscious loss that lies at the core of melancholy.

     By the same negative token, if anything is being preserved or recognized it is the mind's ability to be confronted by plain bitterness, or by the abrupt force of its own displacements—what, after all, assures us that the remembered boyhood self might not have been prey to yet another dissolving trance of involuntary memory while originally staring at the hill? In addition to figuring what we called the poet's radically subversive "powers" of replacement and self-isolation, the hill might thus mark something like an abyss, a capacity for infinite regression within a self that is discontinuously constructed (and possibly undone) by memory. We recall the textual echoes and translations from the "hard hours" back to the "harde stoundes" of an "Ubi Sunt."

     One further ritual trace, related to those already mentioned, is the ceremonial "descent" to a scene of revelation, in which the initiate or adept would be confronted with various emblems, or would be induced to experience a moment of possession. Of course Hecht's scenario of possession offers no sacred tokens, no identification with some inspiring god or demon. And the ceremony is as much one of dispossession as of increased power. But his revealed scene does take on the visionary aspect of an eternal presence ("that promised to last forever"), however negative. And the "papery crash / of a great branch somewhere unseen falling to earth" does have the impact of an absolute, admonitory sign, referring not just to a fall but to a sudden imputative disjoining of branch from tree—perhaps figuring that of the self from some larger matrix, or of part of the self from a more entire identity. Curiously, the gradual return from the revelatory scene to the sunlit market in the piazza is marked by the latter's own fragmentation ("Then prices came through, and fingers"), as if that fabric, like that of the self, can neither be perfectly restored nor regarded as anything but a fragile assemblage of discrete elements, a texture capable of being unraveled to such loose threads as "a piece of ribbon snagged on a hedge."

     The poem is thus deeply subversive on several fronts; and the power of its subversions is surely increased by the way it seems to have enacted various overlapping rites, almost all of them in a negative or dispossessing mode, despite the empowerments we already noticed. In this vein, the negated allusion to Dante ("It was nothing at all like Dante's") both summons a visionary model and disavows it, thereby pointing to the fact that Hecht's infernal vision is not assimilable to some graduated architecture of a spiritual world any more than to the Farnese Palace. Even to call it "infernal" assigns it the kind of interpreted location that it resists. The blank unassimilability of the memory is its point—along with the utter lack of contexts that might have drawn the recollection into a schema of justice, hope, or guided instruction.

     Similarly, any effort to compare the poem with, say, a Wordsworthian "spot of time" must chart its severe difference from even the grimmest of Wordsworth's memorial returns. The blank verse narrative is the same, even the structure whereby the recollecting imagination usurps "ordinary" consciousness. But Hecht offers no obvious recuperative admiration for a growing poetic power and no suggestion of how that power might positively engage the larger designs of nature and society. "A Hill" joins vision with an intransigently bleak anti-vision, certainly not like "the visions of saints, / And perhaps not a vision at all."

     All of these anatomies of melancholy seem the most autobiographical of Hecht’s poems, even when they include the added displacement of characterized voices and plots. That might just make them the more identifiable as dreams. "A Hill" calls itself a vision or dream. And it seems more of a private poem than a personal one. Its juxtaposition of images–piazza and hill–is evidently charged with private associations and meant to operate both within the poem and on the reader as dream-work will. The images are not superimposed, but displaced, the one by the other, the later by the earlier–and both recalled a decade later. The poem cannot be read as any simple alternation of manifest and latent meanings. The action here is the emergence of a suppressed memory. The poem itself does not offer any elaboration or explanation. But the reader who remembers a bit of Hecht’s biography may have some clues, The Roman setting, for instance. During the Second World War, Hecht served in the Army, in both Europe and Japan, and returned home to a slow and difficult period of readjustment. "Like most others who saw any combat at all," he writes, "I experienced a very pronounced and fully conscious sense of guilt at surviving when others, including friends, had not." Then, in 1951, he was awarded the first Prix de Rome writing fellowship ever granted by the American Academy in Rome, and he returned to Europe. Rome, then, carried for the poet a sense of triumph and guilt. And it is not just the burden of history or of artistic tradition (mention of the Farnese Palace focuses that) that presses on the poet until, like Dante, he faints at the intensity of his own imagining but the fact that Rome is where he has been sent, as if in luxurious exile, that makes it appropriate as a scene of instruction.

     And what of the hill, the infernal landscape? Poughkeepsie? Perhaps. A state of soul? More likely. And with its factory-wall and hunter, it is a landscape out of W. H. Auden as well. Let us say it is actual and literary, psychological and metaphysical. And with only slightly altered topography it recurs in several other poems. Such memories hover over the landscape of "A Hill." But for Hecht himself, though he rigorously excluded them from the poem, there are specific personal associations. In a letter he once explained:


As for "A Hill," it is the nearest I was able to come in that early book to what [T. S.] Eliot somewhere describes as an obsessive image or symbol – something from deep in our psychic life that carries a special burden of meaning and feeling for us. In my poem I am really writing about a pronounced feeling of loneliness and abandonment in childhood, which I associate with a cold and unpeopled landscape. My childhood was doubtless much better than that of many, but my brother was born epileptic when I was just over two, and from then on all attention was, very properly, focused on him. I have always felt that desolation, that hell itself, is most powerfully expressed in an uninhabited natural landscape at its bleakest.


     The poem then ends abruptly, even melodramatically, as if further to arrest the action of interpretation. The speaker reverts to childhood, and stands–as, in a sense, the reader does too–before the hill in winter, blank as a page. The clarification and connections we might expect to follow are omitted. But the point of the poem, what the reader is invited to contemplate, is not really the explication of personal experience, but an understanding of the forces of experience itself–forces that are embodied in the poem’s contrasting styles. The poem ends with an image, not a moral. The tense of the last line could as well have been changed from the historical past to the present indicative–"It is winter. I am standing, for hours, before it "–to underscore the fact that he is describing a condition rather than an occurrence.


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"More Light! More Light!"

Anthony Hecht


for Heinrich Blücher and Hannah Arend


Composed in the Tower before his execution

These moving verses, and being brought at that time

Painfully to the stake, submitted, declaring thus:

“I implore my God to witness that I have made no crime.”


Nor was he forsaken of courage, but the death was horrible,

The sack of gunpowder failing to ignite.

His legs were blistered sticks on which the black sap

Bubbled and burst as he howled for the Kindly Light.


And that was but one, and by no means one of the worst;

Permitted at least his pitiful dignity;

And such as were by made prayers in the name of Christ,

That shall judge all men, for his soul’s tranquility.


We move now to outside a German wood.

Three men are there commanded to dig a hole

In which the two Jews are ordered to lie down

And be buried alive by the third, who is a Pole.


Not light from the shrine at Weimar beyond the hill

Nor light from heaven appeared. But he did refuse.

A Lüger settled back deeply in its glove.

He was ordered to change places with the Jews.



Much casual death had drained away their souls.

The thick dirt mounted toward the quivering chin.

When only the head was exposed the order came

To dig him out again and to get back in.


No light, no light in the blue Polish eye.

When he finished a riding boot packed down the earth.

The Lüger hovered lightly in its glove.

He was shot in the belly and in three hours bled to death.


No prayers or incense rose up in those hours

Which grew to be years, and every day came mute

Ghosts from the ovens, sifting through crisp air,

And settled upon his eyes in a black soot.




Anthony Hecht's frequently anthologized "'More Light! More Light!'" is not simply a poem about a terrible event in World War II, but a meditation on the nature of evil. Those critics, such as Daniel Hoffman and Edward Hirsch, who largely ignore the first three stanzas of the poem also ignore Hecht's insistence on the importance of a poem's architecture:


I prefer the work that is decidedly more architectural, in which parts balance one another, and in which everything is essential, so that if something is removed or misplaced, the whole thing collapses, as would be the case with a large building. (McClatchy 185)


     The first three stanzas of Hecht's poem place the reader in the sixteenth-century Tower of London, where a man protesting his innocence is being burned at the stake, probably as a heretic or a traitor. His executioners attempt to give him a quick and merciful death by throwing a sack of gunpowder into the fire, but when the powder fails to ignite they can only pray for his soul as he howls in agony. Though not a specific figure, the victim evokes such men as the Protestant martyrs Nicholas Ridley and High Latimer, whose last words before being burned to death in 1555 were, "Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man: we shall this day light such a candle by God's grace in England as I trust shall never be put out" (Ann Hoffman 294).

     The second part of the poem describes an actual incident from World War II: a Pole first refuses and then obeys an order to bury two Jews alive (Kogon 96-97). The incident took place at Buchenwald, a few miles from "the shrine at Weimar," the home of Goethe, whose dying words provide the title for the poem.

     While some critics, such as Ashley Brown and Peter Sacks, recognize the greater horror of the second death, others misread the poem's judgment. Alicia Ostriker understands the poem as teaching that human cruelty and atrocity are the same through the ages: "there is nothing new under the sun". Norman German reads the phrase, "And that was but one, and by no means one of the worst" as a comment by the executioners in the Tower, arguing that it proves their "absence of compassion in the face of extreme anguish". Critical response to the Pole's act is also mixed. In a short but perceptive commentary on the second half of the poem, Edward Hirsch recognizes the Pole's "impossible purity of action," his humane gesture based only upon his own conscience. Daniel Hoffman, on the other hand, goes so far as to suggest that "the Pole's refusal may suggest that he, like their Nazi captor, is too scornful of Jews to kill them himself".

     Despite these critics, the poem makes a clear judgment: the second death is much worse than the first. It says of the death in the Tower, "And that was but one, and by no means one of the worst." The deaths in the woods are among the worst because they lack the first death's ritual of law and prayer and its "pitiful dignity." Painful though the death in the Tower is, the executioners believe in what they are doing, follow the rule of law, try (if unsuccessfully) to be merciful, pray for the man's soul. The German soldier, on the other hand, is gratuitously cruel, playing mind games, forcing the Pole to deny his own heroism, destroying souls as well as bodies.

     The poem uses formal devices to expand its explicit judgment. It condemns the German soldier by its amazing use of metonymy and the passive voice. The soldier is a void, to be inferred only from a Luger and its glove and a riding boot. Unlike the executioners in the Tower, who pray, the soldier never acts. The Pole and the Jews are, rather, the recipients of actions expressed in the passive voice ("are there commanded," "are ordered," "to . . . be buried," "was ordered," "was exposed," "was shot").

     On the other hand, the poem creates the Pole's heroism by the rhythm of the poetic line, especially by the force of the climactic short sentence which comes after the only emphatic caesura in the poem: "But he did refuse." Despite the lack of either human or divine light, the Pole refuses the initial order, surely heroism of a very high kind. After he has been buried and dug out, however, there is "no light, no light in the blue Polish eye." He has lost both the divine light that sustained men like Latimer and Ridley, and the humanistic light that Goethe epitomizes. Like the Jews whose souls have been "drained away," and the men in Auden's "The Shield of Achilles," who "died as men before their bodies died," the Pole is destroyed by his experience, his eyes finally blinded by the ghosts from the ovens.

     We misread "'More Light! More Light!'" if we make it too small, only the story of an event, no matter how striking. The poem, which is dedicated to Hannah Arendt, the author of Origins of Totalitarianism, and her husband Heinrich Blucher, does not simply tell a story. It judges the Nazi soldier and the system that created him. Hecht condemns not merely the infliction of pain but the destruction of the person—both victim and executioner. It is that destruction that makes the deaths in the German wood so much worse than the fiery death in the Tower.

     In "More Light, More Light!" and "Rites and Ceremonies," two poems from The Hard Hours (1968) that deal directly with the consequences of the Shoah, Hecht's lyric voice is neither that of the objective historian nor the subjectively striving voice of individual expression; somewhere in between, Hecht's speakers are both lecteurs describing events in history and individual personas implicated in the traumatic history unfolding before them. Like the narrator of "Behold the Lilies of the Field," who in a dream is "made to watch" the torture of the emperor Valerian, Hecht's Holocaust poems share a state of what Peter Sacks calls "enforced witnessing," that of an individual who is impelled, for reasons reaching beyond his own comprehension, to stare at and perhaps make sense of atrocity. Yet Hecht does not restrict his historical view to the Shoah alone; both of the poems the researcher considers here connect the atrocities of the Nazis to persecutions farther back in history. Indeed, Hecht's sense of continuity and repetition in history, closely connected to the much-remarked-on formalism of his poetry, distinguishes him from most of the other poets treated in this chapter (and from most American writers of the Holocaust). Hecht's poems provide a particularly useful test-case for the problematic of lyric and the Holocaust, for Hecht seems in many ways the prototypical poet's poet, one who places a high esteem on the aesthetic properties of poetry. Yet his poems avoid a merely solipsistic subjectivism; they insist instead that the lyric is historical, that aesthetics need not mean an escape from history but instead are very much implicated in history, yet still capable of providing insight into it

     As the researcher implied before, the title of "More Light! More Light!" comes from the words attributed to Goethe at his death. Hecht's voice in the poem is level and somewhat detached but clearly present. The poem in fact begins in a clipped style that elides the identity of the implied pronoun referred to in the first quatrain:

Composed in the Tower before his execution
These moving verses, and being brought at that time
Painfully to the stake, submitted, declaring thus:
"I implore my God to witness that I have made no crime."

     Similarly, the later scene, "In which the two Jews are ordered to lie down / And be buried alive by the third, who is a Pole," is notable for its lack of outward outrage or commentary. The largely twelve-syllable or longer lines allow Hecht to achieve this slightly more prosaic level of utterance while still maintaining a sense of gravity; the more regular pattern of pentameter would lend the quatrains a too-restricting formality, potentially emphasizing the aesthetics over the subject matter.

     One of the most striking moments of the poem is the transition from the earlier historical atrocity to the more recent one, unambiguously signalled by the single sentence, "We move now to outside a German wood". The voice here is that perhaps of the history teacher, briskly and unapologetically moving his class from one example to the next. Yet if it is a history teacher, the presumed guide offers no critical apparatus, no commentary, no explanation for the specific choice of these two examples. Why does Hecht intrude with this strange stage direction? It seems to me a necessary moment in the poem. The objective tone of the poem is only a fiction, of course, and this line reminds the reader that a "we" does exist—that the poem is not simply a recital of two possibly analogous historical episodes, but presumes a compact between the poet and his readers, a potential for ethical judgment beyond the pointedly non-ethical confines of the poem's narrated action.

     The scene in the German wood constitutes a total upheaval of normative expectations. The upheaval consists not merely in the pointlessly cruel command (as in most of Reznikoff’s Holocaust) to bury the Jews alive, but in the Pole's refusal at first to commit the act, followed by the Jews' apparent willingness to do so after "He was ordered to change places with the Jews." "Much casual death had drained away their souls," Hecht writes, apparently accounting for the Jews' action here, and the episode concludes inevitably with the German's reversal of the command once again, and the Pole's carrying out of the murder this time, only to be shot to death himself.

     The poem ends with the grotesque image of the Pole's eyes being covered with ashes from the crematoria, continuing the imagery of light, eyes, and sightlessness that appears throughout the poem:

No prayers or incense rose up in those hours
Which grew to be years, and every day came mute
Ghosts from the ovens, sifting through crisp air,
And settled upon his eyes in a black soot.

The shutting off of the Pole's vision with the remains of Jewish victims might be taken as a statement about the Pole's blindness to the humanity of the Jews he has helped kill, a blindness already suggested in the line, "No light, no light in the blue Polish eye". But the Pole nevertheless seems a strange figure to make an example of, for he seems almost as much a victim himself as an oppressor. Where is the German (referred to, as Hirsch points out, only metonymically as a "Luger") in all this? And how is the reader to make sense of the movement from the execution of the heretic in the first three stanzas to the more fully narrated murder of the last five?

     Peter Sacks suggests that "We become horribly implicated in this poem, beyond merely wondering 'what would we have done?' For if we are somehow made to witness the events, we also survive them—in the company of the only other survivor, the Nazi killer." Yet such a reading of the poem makes central the liminal figure of the German, rather than the Pole who receives most of the attention. (Indeed, it is the Jews who seem the least recognizable figures in the poem, referred to only impersonally and in the plural, perhaps already close to death.) We still must ask why Hecht asks us to identify with the perpetrators here.

     One must return, I think, to the title and its implications about the desire or need for light, from Goethe's perspective not simply the literal light that means one is living but the metaphorical light of humanism, enlightenment, moral awakening. And here the connection between the two historical episodes becomes clearer. For it is not a simple analogy that Hecht draws between religious persecution in two different eras (indeed, even the parallel of religious persecution is tenuous, for Jewish belief was hardly an issue for the Nazis, as it was for the Christian inquisitors), but an analogy marked by a significant divergence related to the question of light. For the religious sufferer of the first part, the "Kindly Light" exists as a possibility; the "tranquility" of his soul may be imagined in the face of his torture only because "the name of Christ" still carries that power.

     In the latter event, however, light has been thoroughly extinguished. The repetitions of "Not light" and "Nor light" that begin lines 16 and 17, and the phrase "No light, no light" (negatively echoing Goethe's cry) in line 24 establish figuratively what is borne out in the action narrated: that for all parties involved in the Holocaust, any notion of a redeeming light must be dismissed. To the contrary, the poem can be viewed as a repudiation of Goethe's idealistic hope; his Germany has produced the very opposite of the light he so fervently desired. The utter dehumanization of Pole, German, and Jew in this poem attests to a determinedly non-redemptive historical reading on the part of Hecht. Moreover, the poem puts into question the reader's own ability to "see" the events being transcribed. To what extent, the poem challenges us, has our own line of vision been stripped of any capacity to witness atrocity in a compassionate way? From this angle, the Pole may indeed be the appropriate analogue for the American reader, for both nationalities have been called "bystanders" to the Holocaust. The ostensible excludability of being a bystander, however, is severely undermined when associated with the actions of the Pole—or, more broadly, the many European bystanders who through inaction allowed mass murder to occur. The rigor of Hecht's formal skill does not aestheticize pain in this poem; it does, however, place into tension the restraining qualities of the formal arrangement and the chaotic and violent subject matter bubbling beneath. The simplicity of the form here works in the poem's favor, producing a dynamic tension without calling attention to itself.

     "More Light! More Light!" enacts the multiplication of historical agony . . . and it does so within a repetitive structure of commands whose totalitarian rigor becomes yet another image of fate itself. The strict quatrains with their ballad rhyme-scheme reinforce this by their allusion to narratives of unavoidable fatality. And once again, the poem has a ritual quality, for it describes savage ceremonies of execution and entombment, the last of which even involves a grotesque kind of game. As the German officer orders the Pole to bury the two Jews alive, then reverses the order after the Pole’s refusal only to reverse it yet again and finally to kill all three, he is degrading their very desire for survival. And the poem itself plays against our desire that at least someone survive the transaction. We become horribly implicated in this poem, beyond merely wondering "what would we have done?" For if we are somehow made to witness the events, we also survive them—in the company of the only other survivor, the Nazi killer. It is this manner in which Hecht has trapped himself and his readers within the uncanny association of narrator-observer, survivor, and killer that most thoroughly seals the darkness of the poem and enforces the most despairing vision of the relation between poetry and the bearing of historical witness.

     In a literal sense within the poem there were no witnesses (least of all, God!); or if we have been somehow "present," the unavailability of any offered forms of response leaves us arrested in a frozen silence so mute as to render us almost absent. Perhaps this is the ghostly position most of us occupy in relation to the historical events around us. If we resist association with the killer, perhaps in our muteness we should recognize our similarity to the only final attendants on the corpse: "every day came mute / Ghosts from the ovens, sifting through crisp air, / And settled upon his eyes in a black soot."

     In this bleak twentieth century exemplum, heroism is unrewarded and suffering is neither redemptive nor transcendental. It doesn’t signify. The Pole acts humanely (and without any sign higher than his own conscience) and yet he suffers a death as slow and brutal as that of his victims, the Jews who have already lost their souls and now lose their lives, too. The dehumanization is complete – even the guard is metonymically identified only as his "Luger." There are no mourners or saviors in this poem. There is only the relentless stripping certainty of the death camps. And the eventual passing of time. The Goethean ideal of light has been replaced by the banal darkness of evil. Humanism, like the Age of Reason – is effectively over.

     At times Hecht’s dramatic lyrics armored in biblical allusions remind one of the diction and vehemence of [Robert] Lowell ("These yes, which many have praised as gay, / Are the stale jellies of lust in which Adam sinned"). But in poems that dramatize the hard hours of his generation’s history, Hecht speaks with a tragic irony that is his own unmistakeable voice. In the absence of the light of either Goethe’s humanism or the Word, the Pole’s refusal may suggest that he, like their Nazi captor, is too scornful of Jews to kill them himself. As for them, "Much casual death had drained their souls away," and they obey the order to bury the Pole. But then the Nazi makes them dig him out and get back in. The gravity of Hecht’s quatrains molds this fable of "casual death" as unassuageable, without transcendence.

+ نوشته شده در  سه شنبه ۱۴ مهر۱۳۸۸ساعت   توسط سید شهاب الدین ساداتی | 
یك نمونه دیگر از ارزشهای ایرانی كه خود ما آنرا نمی شناسیم ردای فارغ التحصیلی است. لابد تا به حال شما هم دیده اید وقتی یك دانشجو در دانشگاههای خارج می خواهد مدرك دكترای خود را بگیرد، یك لباس بلند مشكی به تن او می كنند و یك كلاه چهارگوش كه از یك گوشه آن یك منگوله آویزان است بر سر او می گذارند و بعد او لوح فارغ التحصیلی را می خواند.

هنگامی كه از ما سوال می شود كه این لباس و كلاه چیست؟ چه پاسخی میدهید؟! هنگامی كه از یك اروپایی یا ژاپنی و یا حتی آمریكایی سوال شود این لباس چیست كه شما تن فارغ التحصیلانتان می كنید می گویند ما به احترام «آوی سنت» (ابن سینا) پدر علم جهان این لباس را به صورت نمادین می پوشیم.

آنها به احترام «آوی سنت» كه همان «ابن سینا»ی ماست كه لباس بلند رداگونه می پوشیده، این لباس را تن دانشمندان خود می كنند. آن كلاه هم نشانه همان دستار است (کمی فانتزی شده) و منگوله آن نمادی از گوشه دستار خراسانی كه ما ایرانی ها در قدیم از گوشه دستار آویزان می كردیم و به دوش می انداختیم. در اروپا و آمریكا علامت یك آدم برجسته و دانش آموخته را لباس و كلاه ابن سینا می گذارند.
+ نوشته شده در  یکشنبه ۱۲ مهر۱۳۸۸ساعت   توسط سید شهاب الدین ساداتی | 


"Black Art"

Imamu Amiri Baraka


Poems are bullshit unless they are

teeth or trees or lemons piled

on a step. Or black ladies dying

of men leaving nickel hearts

beating them down. Fuck poems

and they are useful, wd they shoot

come at you, love what you are,

breathe like wrestlers, or shudder

strangely after pissing. We want live

words of the hip world live flesh &

coursing blood. Hearts Brains

Souls splinting fire. We want poems

like fists beating niggers out of Jocks

or dagger poems in the slimy bellies

of the owner-jews. Black poems to

smear on girdlemamma mulatto bitches

whose brains are red jelly stuck

between 'lizabeth taylor's toes. Stinking

Whores! We want "poems that kill."

Assassin poems, Poems that shoot

guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys

and take their weapons leaving them dead

with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland. Knockoff

poems for dope selling wops or slick halfwhite

politicians Airplane poems, rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

rrrrrrrrrrrrrrr … tuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuh

… rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr … Setting fire and death to

whities ass. Look at the Liberal

Spokesman for the jews clutch his throat

& puke himself into eternity … rrrrrrrr

There's negroleader pinned to

a bar stool in Sardi's eyeballs melting

in hot flame Another negroleader

on the steps of the white house one

kneeling between the sheriff's thighs

negotiating coolly for his people.

Agggh … stumbles across the room …

Put it on him, poem. Strip him naked

to the world! Another bad poem cracking

steel knuckles in a jewlady's mouth

Poem scream poison gas on beasts in green berets

Clean out the world for virtue and love,

Let there be no love poems written

until love can exist freely and

cleany. Let black people understand

that they are the lovers and the sons

of lovers and warriors and sons

of warriors Are poems & poets &

all the loveliness here in the world


We want a black poem. And a

Black World.

Let the world be a Black Poem

And Let All Black People Speak This Poem




Imamu Amiri Baraka 1966






In order to understand this famous poem by (Imamu) Amiri Baraka, one needs to know about Black Art Movement in United States during 1960's. The Black Art movement – also known as the Black Aesthetic, the New Black Consciousness, and the New Black Renaissance – began in the mid- 1960's and lasted, in its most intense phase, until mid-1970's. The poetry, prose fiction, drama, and criticism written by African Americans during this period expressed a more militant attitude toward white American culture and its racist practices and ideologies. Slogans such as "Black Power", "Black Pride" and "Black is Beautiful" represented a sense of political, social, and cultural freedom for African Americans, who had gained not only a heightened sense of their own oppression but a greater feeling of solidarity with other parts of the black world such as Africa and the Caribbean.

     The Black Arts movement was strongly associated with the Black Power movement and its brand of radical or revolutionary politics. As the critic Stephen Henderson suggested in the introduction to his 1972 anthology Understanding the New Black Poetry, the artists and writers of the Black Arts movement had "moved beyond the Harlem Renaissance" in their capacity to view their community "in the larger political and spiritual context of Blackness". In the poems and critical statements of Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal, and others, Henderson claimed, "one can see the process of self-definition made clearer and sharper as the self-reliance and racial consciousness of an earlier period are revived and raised to the level of revolutionary thought". The writing of the Black Arts movement would not be "protest" art so much as "an art of liberating vision".

     Henderson identified three basic categories according to which African American poetry could be analyzed. The first of these was the poem's theme or specific subject matter; the second was its structure, including such elements as diction, rhythm, and figurative language; and the third was what he called the poem's "saturation", the extent to which it communicated its "blackness" and the accuracy of its presentation of black life in the United States.

     The dominant theme in African American poetry, Henderson suggests, has always been that of "liberation", whether from slavery, from segregation, or from the false wish for integration into the mainstream of white middle-class society. A secondary theme in African American poetry has been the concern with a spiritual or mystical dimension (whether in religion, African mythology, or musical forms like hymns, blues, and jazz) which can provide a meaningful alternative to "the temporal, the societal, and the political". In terms of structure, Henderson identifies a range of stylistic elements in contemporary black poetry involving references to both colloquial black speech and music, especially jazz and blues. Finally, the "saturation" of an African American poem involves the depth and the quality of its evocation of black experience.

     The most influential of the new black poets is (Imamu) Amiri Baraka. After graduating from Howard University, Baraka became part of the avant-garde literary scene, befriending poets like Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, and Frank O'Hara. During this period (1950's), Baraka was more drawn to the poetry and ideas of the Beats and other white avant-garde movements than to the politics of black separatism; even he married a white woman. He wrote poems, essays, plays, and a novel within the context of the Beat counterculture. But in the mid-1960's, deeply affected by the death of Malcolm X, Baraka made a number of important changes that we can follow in his literary works.

     Baraka's poetry changed radically during the 1960's, as he turned from a more general sense of social alienation to a vision that was politically revolutionary and that expressed a profound solidarity with black culture. Baraka's real poetic revolution comes with the poem "Black Art" (1966). "Black Art" is Baraka's most famous poem and has been called the signature poem of the Black Arts movement, but it is one about which critics and readers are strongly divided. As Warner Sollors suggests, the poem is "strikingly for its venomous language and for its rhetorical violence". The poem is virtual barrage of language directed against white society in general, and more specific attacks are launched against Jews, white liberals, and bourgeois black.

     Baraka finds that the normal boundaries of poetic language no longer contain the words he needs in order to express his rage. The use of obscenities and of raw sounds – "rrrr … tuhtuhtuh" – turns language into the verbal guns of "poems that kill". Jerry Watts, who is particularly critical of the poem, calls it "an insurrectionary statement of hilarious and demented imagery", and he dismisses it as "nothing more than mere thuggery superimposed on hurt black feelings, importance, and defeat". At the same time, however, there are reasons for the poem's success within the Black Arts movement. While the poem is certainly disturbing, especially in its anti-semitic references, it is rhetorically powerful in its suggestion that poetry can reverse many of the injustices perpetrated on African Americans. Lines like "Poems that wrestle cops into alleys / and take their weapons leaving them dead / with tongues pulled out" express the desire for social and political revenge by reversing the power relationships usually operating in American society. The poem's ending is more affirmative, calling for the "black poem" that can lead to a "Black World":


Let the world be a Black Poem

And Let All Black People Speak This Poem




+ نوشته شده در  سه شنبه ۷ مهر۱۳۸۸ساعت   توسط سید شهاب الدین ساداتی | 

       Somebody Blew Up America

                Imamu Amiri Baraka

   (All thinking people
   oppose terrorism
   both domestic
   & international…
   But one should not
    be used
   To cover the other)

They say its some terrorist, some
                          A Rab, in
It wasn't our American terrorists
It wasn't the Klan or the Skin heads
Or the them that blows up nigger
Churches, or reincarnates us on Death Row
It wasn't Trent Lott
Or David Duke or Giuliani
Or Schundler, Helms retiring

It wasn't
the gonorrhea in costume
the white sheet diseases
That have murdered black people
Terrorized reason and sanity
Most of  humanity, as they pleases

They say (who say? Who do the saying
Who is them paying
Who tell the lies
Who in disguise
Who had the slaves
Who got the bux out the Bucks

Who got fat from plantations
Who genocided Indians
Tried to waste the  Black nation

Who live on Wall Street
   The first plantation
Who cut your nuts off
Who rape your ma
Who lynched your pa

Who got the tar, who got the feathers
Who had the match, who set the fires
Who killed and hired
Who say they God & still be  the Devil

Who the biggest only
Who the  most goodest
Who do Jesus resemble

Who created everything
Who  the smartest
Who  the greatest
Who  the richest
Who say you ugly and they  the goodlookingest

Who define art
Who define science

Who made the bombs
Who made the guns

Who bought the  slaves, who sold them

Who called you them names
Who say Dahmer wasn't insane
       Who/  Who /  Who/

Who stole Puerto Rico
Who stole the Indies, the Philipines, Manhattan
   Australia & The Hebrides
Who forced opium on the Chinese

Who own them buildings
Who got the money
Who think you funny
Who locked you up
Who own the papers

Who owned the slave ship
Who run the army

Who  the  fake president
Who  the ruler
Who  the banker
                 Who/ Who/ Who/

Who own the mine
Who twist your mind
Who  got bread
Who need peace
Who you think need war

Who own the oil
Who do no toil
Who own the soil
Who is not a nigger
Who is so great ain't nobody bigger

Who own  this city

Who own the air
Who own the water

Who own your crib
Who rob and steal and cheat and murder
       and make lies the truth
Who call you uncouth

Who live in the biggest house
Who do the biggest crime
Who go on vacation anytime

Who killed the most niggers
Who killed the most Jews
Who killed the most Italians
Who killed the most Irish
Who killed the most Africans
Who killed the most Japanese
Who killed the most Latinos


Who own the ocean

Who own the airplanes
Who own the malls
Who own  television
Who own  radio

Who own what ain't even known to be owned
Who own the owners that ain't the real owners

Who own the suburbs
Who suck the cities
Who make the laws

Who  made  Bush  president
Who believe the confederate flag need to be flying
Who talk about democracy and be lying

Who  the Beast in Revelations
Who  666
Who decide
   Jesus get crucified

Who  the Devil on the real side
Who got rich from Armenian genocide

Who  the biggest terrorist
Who change the bible
Who killed the most people
Who do the most evil
Who don't worry about survival

Who have the colonies
Who stole the most land
Who rule the world
Who say they good but only do evil
Who  the biggest executioner

   Who/Who/Who     ^^^

Who own the oil
Who want more oil
Who told you what you think that later you find out a lie
Who/ Who/ ???

Who fount Bin Laden, maybe they Satan
Who pay the CIA,
Who knew the bomb was gonna blow
Who know why the  terrorists
   Learned to fly in Florida, San Diego

Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion
   And cracking they sides at the notion

Who need fossil fuel when the sun ain't goin' nowhere

Who make the credit cards
Who get the biggest tax cut
Who walked out of the Conference
   Against Racism
Who killed Malcolm, Kennedy & his Brother
Who killed Dr King, Who would want such a thing?
   Are they linked to the murder of Lincoln?

Who invaded Grenada
Who made money from apartheid
Who keep the Irish a colony
Who overthrow Chile and Nicaragua later

Who killed David Sibeko,  Chris Hani,
    the same ones who killed Biko, Cabral,
       Neruda, Allende, Che Guevara, Sandino,

Who killed Kabila,  the ones who wasted Lumumba, Mondlane , Betty Shabazz, Princess Margaret, Ralph Featherstone, Little Bobby

Who locked up Mandela, Dhoruba, Geronimo,
Assata, Mumia,Garvey, Dashiell Hammett, Alphaeus Hutton

Who killed Huey Newton, Fred Hampton,
    MedgarEvers, Mikey Smith, Walter Rodney,
Was it the ones who tried to poison Fidel
Who tried to keep the Vietnamese Oppressed

Who put a price on Lenin's head

Who put the Jews in ovens,
     and who helped them   do it
Who said "America First"
        and ok'd  the yellow stars
                                                WHO/WHO/ ^^
Who killed Rosa Luxembourg, Liebneckt
Who murdered the Rosenbergs
   And all the good people iced,
   tortured , assassinated, vanished

Who got rich from Algeria, Libya, Haiti,
   Iran, Iraq, Saudi, Kuwait, Lebanon,
   Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine,

Who cut off peoples hands in the Congo
Who invented Aids Who put the germs
   In the Indians' blankets
Who thought up "The Trail of Tears"

Who blew up the Maine
& started the Spanish American War
Who got Sharon back in Power
Who backed Batista, Hitler, Bilbo,
      Chiang kai Chek                       who WHO   W H O/

Who decided Affirmative Action had to go
  Reconstruction, The New Deal, The New
  Frontier, The Great Society,

Who do Tom Ass Clarence Work for
Who doo doo come out the Colon's mouth
Who know what kind of Skeeza is a Condoleeza
Who pay Connelly to be a wooden negro
Who give Genius Awards to Homo Locus

Who overthrew Nkrumah,  Bishop,
Who poison Robeson,
        who try to put DuBois in Jail
Who frame Rap Jamil al Amin, Who frame the Rosenbergs, Garvey,
         The Scottsboro Boys,      The Hollywood Ten

Who set the Reichstag Fire

Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
   To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away                    ?
Who,Who, Who/
                         explosion of Owl the newspaper say
the devil face cd be seen       Who  WHO     Who WHO

Who make money from war
Who make  dough from fear and lies
Who want the world like it is
Who want the world to be ruled by imperialism and national oppression and terror
   violence, and hunger and poverty.

Who is the ruler of Hell?
Who is the most powerful

Who you know ever
Seen God?

But everybody seen
The Devil

Like an Owl exploding
In your life in your brain in your self
Like an Owl who know the devil
All night, all day if you listen, Like an Owl
Exploding in fire. We hear the questions rise
In terrible flame like the whistle of a crazy dog

Like the acid vomit of the fire of Hell
Who and Who and WHO (+) who who ^
    Whoooo and Whooooooooooooooooooooo!

Imamu Amiri Baraka (2002)

Reading "Somebody Blew Up America"

On Saturday 22, November 2002, Amiri Baraka, one of America's most distinguished poets delivered a lecture at Wellesley College. It caused a huge controversy on the campus because Baraka wrote "Somebody Blew up America," a poem that dealt with the disastrous events of September 11, 2002 and his reaction towards it.

     Amiri Baraka's poem has caused painful feelings on all sides and generated much controversy. Whether we agree or disagree about the "anti-Semitic" nature of "Somebody Blew up America," it is important to engage the poem in its own terms and in its literary and cultural contexts. Yet we must be careful. As is true with so many of these issues, once a black person's work is under scrutiny, most of the critics seem to lose their perspective and decide that statements about hate, etc., are enough to be victorious. Such a position is not new. In 1963-64, in a celebrated exchange with Irving Howe, a progressive Jewish intellectual of tremendous imaginative and intellectual power, Ralph Ellison had cause to ask:


Why is it so often true that when critics confront the American as Negro they suddenly drop their advanced critical armament and revert with an air of confident superiority to quite primitive modes of analysis? Why is it that sociology-oriented critics seem to rate literature so far below politics and ideology that they would rather kill a novel [or a poem] than modify their presumptions concerning a given reality which it seeks in its own terms to project? Finally, why is it that so many of those who would tell us the meaning of Negro life never bother to learn how varied it really is? (Shadow and Act, 108)


     Needless to say, the first two questions are more pertinent to the researcher's discussion and raise several important questions. In the first instance, we must be truthful before any honest dialogue can take place. No matter how we try to disguise it, the entire controversy around Baraka and his persona non grata status on this campus arose because he wrote "Somebody Blew up America." Despite claims to the contrary, prior to October 1, 2002, very few persons can point to one essay s/he penned protesting the hatred, venom, etc., of Baraka's work. Therefore, it seems sensible to discuss this work in its own terms and in its literary and cultural contexts.
     Before the present researcher discusses this poem, it is important to point out that amidst the sound and fury of this controversy, Professors Erika Williams and Elena Gascon-Vera sought to remind us that we were dealing with a poem as a particular form of literary expression. For example, Professor Williams asserted: "Baraka produces literature-a fact that seems to get lost in the discussion about his personal views and/or stated rhetoric in such forums as newspapers interviews and public speeches." In their own ways, Professors Williams and Gascon-Vera sought to nudge us to an understanding that it was necessary to take on the poem in its own terms before we arrived at any conclusions about what it had to say.
     "Somebody Blew up America" is about 240 lines long. It asks some fundamental questions about what took place on September 11. It begins with a declaration: "(All thinking people/oppose terrorism/both domestic/& international.../But one should not/ be used/ To cover the other.)" That seems clear enough to the reader. After such a declaration, the poem states:


They say its some terrorist, some
                          A Rab, in
It wasn't our American terrorists
It wasn't the Klan or the Skin heads
Or the them that blows up nigger
Churches, or reincarnates us on Death Row


As a poet, he can only answer these questions through the preparation and organization of language to arrive at a particular stance on the matter. Even more importantly, a poem is meant to be heard rather than read. But it is significant that before he even says a word about the Jews, he uses language that resonates in a manner that brings home the pain and suffering that African Americans and all other oppressed groups have had to undergo at the hands of white American terrorists.
     Beginning with the assertion that somebody blew up America, the poem utilizes a rhetorical strategy that asks the questions: why and who. Each unit of the poem contributes to the making of its meaning and reaches its crescendo when it asks the ultimate question: "Who and Who and Who WHO (+) who who /Whoooo and WhooooooOOOOOOooooOoooo!" Such urgency, captured at its most intense in Baraka's reading of the poem, suggests that more than four lines are at stake in this poem. Wrenching four lines from this poem does it a terrible injustice, no matter how passionate one feels about the sentiments that are expressed.
     There are other aids that help us to understand the poem. Although the poet's explication of his text is not/should not be taken as self-evident truth, anyone who wishes to understand what Baraka is about in this poem cannot be unmindful of what he says about what he tried to achieve in his poem. In a statement of October 2, 2002 ("Statement by Amiri Baraka, New Jersey Poet Laureate: 'I Will Not 'Apologize,' I will not resign"), Baraka offers many clues about how his poem ought to be read. He says "the poem's underlying theme focuses on how Black Americans have suffered from domestic terrorism since being kidnapped into US chattel slavery, e.g., by Slave Owners, US & State Laws, Klan, Skin Heads, Domestic Nazis, Lynching, denial of rights, national oppression, racism, character assassination, historically, and at this very minute throughout the US. The relevance of this to Bush's call for a 'War on Terrorism,' is that Black people feel we have always been victims of terror, governmental and general, so we cannot get as frenzied and hysterical as the people who while asking to dismiss our history and contemporary reality to join them, in the name of a shallow 'patriotism' in attacking the majority of people in the world, especially people of color and in the third world." In researcher's way of seeing, such a goal has nothing to do with the Jews and Sharon per se. It has to do with an African-American response, if we may, to a very catastrophic moment in our history.
     Again, Baraka is very specific in his intention. He says: "We cannot in good conscience, celebrate what seems to us an international crusade to set up a military dictatorship over the world, legitimized at base, by white supremacy, carried out, no matter the crude lies, as the most terrifying form of imperialism and its attendant national oppression. All of it designed to drain super profits bluntly from the colored peoples of the world, but as well, from the majority peoples of the world.!" Then he makes an important statement: "For all the frantic condemnations of Terror by Bush & co, as the single International Super Power, they are the most dangerous terrorists in the world!' There are many persons who would not/do not want to believe this, but some of us see Bush's terrorist campaign as a way to scuttle many of our civil liberties and the war directed against Iraq as a very dangerous undertaking."
     This is Baraka's focus. Like it or not, this is where he wants to go. He is concerned about oppressed people all over the world, even the Jews who suffered during the Holocaust, hence his question (constant questioning): "Who put the Jews in ovens,/ and who helped them do it,/ Who said 'America First"/ and ok'd the yellow stars." As Baraka explains, the latter is "a reference to America's domestic fascists just before World War II and the Nazi Holocaust." Baraka also went out of his way to mention the names of Jews all over the world that were "oppressed, murdered by actual Anti-Semitic forces, open or disguised." The poem asks: "Who killed Rosa Luxembourg, Liebneckt/Who murdered the Rosenbergs/ All the good people iced, tortured, assassinated, vanished." At its best, the poem acknowledges Jewish suffering and pain and attempts to speak for all of those groups (and persons) who have been oppressed by racist, terrorist and fascist forces that become rich in the process. He says that he is a communist. Therefore, it seems reasonable that in the penultimate lines of the poem he would ask:


Who make money from war
Who make dough from fear and lies
Who want the world like it is

Who want the world to be ruled by imperialism and
National oppression and Terror
Violence, and hunger and poverty.

Who is the ruler of Hell?
Who is the most powerful

Who you know ever Seen God?

But everybody seen The Devil.


These are powerful lines. Baraka means to be provocative. We may not "like" what he says, but he believes he has an important literary statement to make and he demands that we respond to his words. What, then, are the offending lines?

Who knew the World Trade center was gonna get Bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?
And again the question:
Who? Who? Who/


     In his reading, Baraka was careful to distinguish between Israeli citizens and American Jews. He insists that he was not saying that "Israel was responsible for the Attack, but that they knew and our counterfeit President did too!" Now, Baraka can certainly be taken to task for this statement, but he has offered his evidence for such a conclusion. He says, even the Democratic Party asserted that the administration knew much more than they told the public and called for an investigation into same. As recently as November 22, the New York Times questioned how much the CIA and FBI knew about the Saudi Arabia connection to the events of September 11. But Baraka goes further. He argued that "Michael Ruppert of the Green Party has issued a video stating clearly, 'Israeli security issued urgent warnings to the CIA of large-scale terror attacks...And that the Israeli Mossad knew the attacks were going to take place...they knew the World Trade Center were targets. This is from the British newspaper The Telegraph." Speaking of the day in question, the British Telegraph of September 16, 2001 had this to say:


     In the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld, the 69-year-old Defense Secretary, was beginning a working breakfast with a few Congress members to discuss missile defense. Stony-faced, Rumsfeld voiced his long-held opinion that the US would face another terrorist attack in the near future. "Let me tell ya," he drawled, "I've been around the block a few times. There will be another event."

     It was hardly the first warning: last month, Israeli intelligence officials had warned their US counterparts that a large-scale terrorist attack on key targets on the American mainland was imminent. Two senior military intelligence experts had been sent to Washington in August to alert the CIA and FBI that a cell of 200 terrorists was preparing a major operation.

     Given our understanding of things as it were then, no one can say with any degree of specificity that the CIA or the FBI knew the terrorists would pounce on the targets on which they did. But Baraka speaks from a particular site and from a specific point of view.
     Baraka is more specific about the second of the four offending lines. In trying to confirm what the US knew, when it knew it, etc., Baraka insists that "Israeli security force, SHABAK knew about the attack in advance. My sources were 'Ha'aret" and 'Yadiot Ahranot" (two Israeli newspapers) 'Al Watan' (a Jordanian newspaper), Manar-TV and the websites of the Israeli security force SHABAK. There are myriad references to this in Reuters, Der Spiegel. The Israeli newspaper Yadiot Ahranot 1st revealed SHABAK had cancelled Sharon's appearance in New York City that day, Sept 11, where he was supposed to speak at an "Israeli Day" celebration. This was also mentioned in the Star Ledger to the effect Sharon was supposed to visit the US, but no dates were mentioned. It is the Green Party's Ruppert who makes the most effective case for the 4000 Israeli workers (Not Jewish Workers!) but Israeli nationals. He says in his video, 'if what I am showing you is known overtly all through the media, how much more does our thirty billion dollar intelligence community know'. . . 'Nonsense' to say the Israeli did it. They were warning the US hands over fist. . . We reviewed the list of former tenants of the World Trade Center at the on-line Wall St., Journal site. And there's the website. It is an alphabetical list of tenants. Scrool to the very bottom and notice the moving date for the office of Zim American-Israeli Shipping to Norfolk Virginia. They were all in the World Trade Center. They must have had Mossad' or (Shabak-AB) input because they left one week before September and they broke their lease. The Israelis did not pull the attack, but they were smart enough to get their people out of the way."
     The present researcher must confess that he checked neither the video nor the Israeli newspapers that Baraka cites. Baraka's conclusion may be right or it may be wrong. He certainly is not a madman-and mad men do have their own truths — proclaiming his truths without a smattering of evidence. As an artist, Baraka is using his poem to disturb, to ask us to questions what took place on September 11 and why. Speaking of five Israelis who were laughing while they were categorizing the collapse (and this is tough to believe), Baraka says: "This is why the poem … throughout continuously chants the question WHO WHO WHO? That is, who is responsible for this horrible crime and WHY? It is a poem that aims to probe and disturb, but there is not the slightest evidence of Anti-Semitism, as anyone who reads it without some insidious bias would have to agree."
     However one takes Baraka's declaration, the crude sociological modes that Ellison condemned has to come to terms with other semiological modes of literary analysis in which the status of language within the novel or the poem are of enormous importance. Semioticians (particularly someone such as Saussure) reminded us that there is a distinction between the sound image (the signifier) and the concept (the signified) as he tried to move us away from the notion that there is some "real world" out there which we refer to in words. They also warn us that the "real world" we articulate through signs may not be the same (that is, may not mean the same thing ) for/to all of us. Even Michel Foucault who violently objected to being called a (post)structuralist by "certain half-witted 'commentators'', responded to Eduardo Sanguinetti's appeal to realism with the following quip: "Reality does not exist...Language is all there is, and what we are talking about is language, we speak within language" (David Macey, The Many Lives of Michel Foucault, p. 150). Suffice it to say, that when we examine a poem we must always be concerned to relate systems of signs to meaning.
     Even within the African-American tradition of literary criticism, an "epistemological break," to use the language of Louis Althusser (Lenin and Philosophy), occurred when Henry Louis Gates (The Signifying Monkey [1988]) made a stunning advancement over Addison Gayle's work (The Way of the New World [1975]) when he argued that even an analysis of African American literature had to supply a more sophisticated understanding of how language functions in the making of any verbal work. Incidentally, this is one reason (apart from the work that Alice Walker did) why Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) was elevated within the African American canon at the expense of Richard Wright's Native Son (1940). Even within the African-American critical tradition of literature (and we have a way of looking at the world) crude sociological modes of analysis must give way to modes that seek to understand how language functions within the poem.
     It is these varied readings of cultural signs that have led to such disparate explications of Baraka's poem. This is what Professors Gason-Vera and Williams have pointed out. Gason-Vera pleads: "My defense is literature. Poems are poems, and for literature people, like me, if they are good, they are sacred. I have not read [David] Duke, actually, if I remember well he is popular racist who wanted to be Governor of Louisiana, isn't it he. I will probable hate the man. However, if Duke will write a poem denouncing injustices and suffering of his people and will do it with a strong poem, with strong metaphors that could be analyses in a literary, political, and historical context, I would love to teach it."
     Williams offers the following: "[In 'Somebody Blew Up America,'] there are plenty of references to hot-button political and historical issues ('Who got fat from plantations/Who genocide Indians/ Tried to waste the Black nation'). But there are no imputations to blame any one group for the various social tragedies Baraka is railing against-in fact, he is liberal in his suggestion that quite a few people including key African-American members of the Bush administration might be called into question for their political beliefs or politics. Questioning is in fact the dominant rhetorical strategy in Baraka's poem ('Who is them paying/Who telling lies, etc.,') I suppose that my real questions are: how do we go about anchoring claims that someone's art per se is responsible for promoting-racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. beliefs?"
     We must always examine how language is used in a particular work of art. After D. H. Lawrence published Lady Chatterley's Lover, it was condemned for its "phallic reality" and "indescribable corruption." When the novel arrived in the United States copies were confiscated by the US customs on grounds that such "vile" and "vulgar" language would subvert the morals of the community. As Professor Williams asks in the specific context of "Somebody Blew up America": "How do we read Joseph Conrad's portrayal of soulless, savage 'niggers' in Conrad's Heart of Darkness? After being excoriated by the press, Lawrence exclaimed "Nobody likes being called a cesspool" (Lady Chatterley's Lover: A Propos of 'Lady Chatterley Lover," xxxii). One could not help but hear similar resonances in Baraka's outburst: "I am not an Anti-Semite. No one likes being slandered. Your slander will be with me for the rest of my life!" (Lecture, November 22).
     We may or may not like "Somebody Blew up America." Yet, we cannot reduce the poem to a crude sociological document. It requires a special kind of expertise and discipline to understand it. This does not mean that we have to like it. Many may find it disturbing, but then that is the author's purpose. Many may find it offensive or worse, that, too, is a conclusion we must also respect. Yet, as scholars and teachers, we have a special obligation to our colleagues, our students and our college, to act as educated men and women to whom rationality and analysis are of primary importance. We do our community little good if we do not ask our students to look at this (and other texts) seriously, carefully and knowledgeable. These are indispensable criteria for ferreting out the truth of any literary act.
     Baraka's work has enriched the lives of many persons throughout the world. As he displayed, the thrust of his work is meant to disturb our peaceful acceptance of the terrors and evils of this world. Unless Wellesley is different from other parts of the world, Baraka's work will continue to do for Wellesley what it has done for the rest of the world. Twenty years from now, Baraka's truth, as Whitman's truth, and as Poe's truth, will have more value than anything his critics have said. The truth of Baraka's work, warts and all, will live on as long as we respect the power of the word and the lucidity with which it captures the struggles of all oppressed people all over the world.


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