The essay I dug up for this week is definitely from the Sarah Lawrence essay class because Lamont and Annie actually put their names on the first page, which is nice, because then I can remember them. They found a Jan/Feb 1996 article in The American Poetry Review by Christopher Merrill about poets and the war in Sarajevo, “Everybody Was Innocent: On Writing and War.”
Aside from this essay, we can all sense we’re living through unprecedented times right now, relatives against relatives, old friends against old friends, teams against teams. I watched The Social Dilemma last weekend on Netflix and fears are mounting regarding civil wars in most established democracies around the world right now. This is no longer a far-fetched idea. And it seems social media has done a lot of the work to create a monstrous dystopian reality for all of us.
As writers we all may soon be called upon to become war writers right inside of our own poems about place. This will become the same project.
When I read news reports of Sarajevo back in the 1990s, I remember feeling very moved and very removed. So reading this essay again gave me both a flashback on that feeling and an entirely new perspective.
In this article, Christopher Merrill visits Sarajevo and interviews an ‘embedded’ poet there. Which reminded me, I subscribed to APR for a few years and never read a single article like this in the journal, only academic reviews and landscapes. I wish APR had been as hard-hitting when I subscribed.
The article talks about the special issues around writing about war, such as:
“I want to explore some of the ways in which writers can approach a subject extensively covered by the media: when television cameras shape our perception of a tragedy like Bosnia, how can writers respond to it without, as Sarajevans say of some visitors to their city, ‘going on safari’ – shopping for material, that is, like tourists?”
We can easily replace the idea of television with cable news and social media.
1996 was a year of commemorations, Merrill stated: the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, V-J Day, the shootings at Kent State, the fall of Saigon…
"it is important to remember that more than fifty wars are now taking place around the world. The Cold War is over, and we are deep into the Cold Peace.”
Merrill talks about how in Sarajevo the war script was flipped, how in typical wars, the majority of the casualties were soldiers. But in Bosnia, the majority of deaths were civilian. He talks about the “sense of ambiguity integral to the talks of writing about war. Nothing is as it seems…despite what pundits and politicians would have us believe.”
He quotes Vietnam writer Tim O’Brien:
“In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of the truth itself, and therefor it’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing is every absolutely true.”
He talks about the “enormous power of television” and how “CNN has the power to shape events” and again for us it's the cripplingly awesome power of social media and the Internet.
The article quotes Greek poet, Odysseas Elytis, translated by Olga Broumas and T. Begley, who says that during World War II,
“An entire contemporary literature made the mistake of competing with events and succumbing to horror instead of balancing it, as it should have done”
in contrast with the example of Henri Matisse who:
'‘in the years of Buchenwald and Auschwitz…painted the juiciest, rawist, most enchanting flowers and fruits every made, as if the miracle of life itself discovered it could compress itself inside them forever.”
This reminded me of the immense and moving humanity to be found in Georges Perec’s novel Life A Users Manual. Merrill says,
“This is, of course, no small task—even in peacetime. And those who rise to the occasion in war are truly heroes of the literary imagination.”
He considers Bosnian poet Goran Simic one such hero, “discovering meaning in this tragedy.” He also quotes Ferida Durakovic,
“Before the war I didn’t really like Goran’s poetry. It was too hermetic to me. But now it’s so clear and direct. Now he only writes about what’s important.”
Merrill says what interests him is how Simic “looks at the crevice between what the media finds and reality itself.” Merrill talks about Sarajevan humor “at its most biting with a profound moral vision….” and this most haunting warning by journalist Dizdarvic,
‘the victory of evil continues on unabated—the powerlessness of good, the triumph of chaos over order, the verification of defeat in the match between humanity and the bestial goes on…that Sarajevo’s story is not unique—many other towns like it lie along the road of the madmen who have ruined it. As a Sarajevan who has seen and lived through these events, I am compelled to broadcast a warning: there are sick people in the world who now understand that they are dealing with a public that, when it comes to international politics, is egotistical, incompetent, and unrealistic. We are witnessing a renascence of Nazism and Fascism, and now one is willing to call it to a halt. We are witnessing the abolition of all recognized human values.”
That was 1996.
“This insight,” Merrill says, “is one reason why the War Congress closed its session with Ferida Durakovic reading a declaration asserting that ‘the writer exists to face evil.’” Merrill says, “Televised images of war are revolting, but we grow used to them. The writer’s task is to change that.”
Merrill talks about Tobias Wolff’s memoir, In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War,
”Wolff went to see at eighteen dreaming of Melville, and it may be said that he went to war to act out something from Hemingway. A writer’s education depends upon the stripping away of illusions about the world—and the self. There is no better place to do that than in a war, where you quickly come up against your own cowardice.”
Merrill ends with a comparison of the witnesses versus the watchers:
“The difference between witnessing and watching is a function of the imagination. Witnessing comes from the Old English for to know; watching is related to waking as from sleep. First we watch and then, if our imaginations are sufficiently engaged, we witness. What I wish for is to make witnesses of us, not just watchers, because in the Age of Television [the Internet] no one is innocent.”
We are at the precipice, if not in the midst, of a civil war, a global civil war and also a very local civil war. It is here. How will we write about it?