I am thinking about poetry. It could be because I found a lot of poetry floating around in the wake of the brutal rape and murder of the eight-year-old girl in Kathua. Most of it was melancholic and lyrical. It is clear that the incident has shocked us. This reaction seem natural. The poems we read or heard were nothing but a cry of despair and rage. It should be taken as a sign that humanity is still alive. The poems also revealed a resolve to fight this criminality. That is also proof that humanity survives in us.
In a way, poetry written in situations like these is a desperate attempt to assert our humanity. It is necessary since it looks obscene that we are living on after such cruelty. It fills us with guilt. We start looking not only for the meaning of our life but also a justification for our continuing to live normally. We, who could not prevent this crime, claim to be humans yet lack the resources to prove our humaneness. In such conditions, poetry comes as an aid, an act of consolation, a relief.
There is a temptation, in such a situation, to recall Adorno. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, he said. It was misread and propagated as no poetry after Auschwitz. Later, Adorno admitted to the right of poetry, “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream”.
Adorno’s argument was complex. In Negative Dialectics, he wrote: “But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living — especially, whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living. His mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz; this is the drastic guilt of him who was spared. By way of atonement, he will be plagued by dreams such as that he is no longer living at all, that he was sent to the ovens in 1944 and his whole existence since has been imaginary, an emanation of the insane wish of a man killed twenty years earlier.”
Can this passage help us deal with our predicament? Or, is it specific to the very unique experience of the Holocaust? Survival after such a crime can produce guilt in those who escaped the gas chamber. Bertolt Brecht seemed to echo Adorno when he wrote: “I know of course; it’s simply luck /That I’ve survived so many friends.” So, it is a very unique Jewish dilemma. Only Jewish survivors suffer the pangs of this guilt.
Adorno, however, says the very fact of our ability to write poetry proves we have not lost our subjectivity, that culture lives. But as George Steiner explained, culture, when faced with massive elimination of millions of human beings proved to be “absolutely impotent and defenceless. In fact, it adorned much of this stuff.” So, why give ourselves the privilege of culture? Why this falsehood? For what use is humanity if it can’t make cruelty impossible?
Steiner, therefore, goes a step ahead of Adorno and Benjamin (“At the base of every major work of art is a pile of barbarism”): “We should say, ‘shut up for while’. …Not reduce them to articulate language, which in a curious way makes them acceptable.” As if Adorno warns, “Careful! Careful! Even the greatest outcry if it is formalised, let’s say, into verse or rhyme or stanzas, adds a mystery of acceptability to the phenomenon.”
The persecution of Jews, their tragedy got monumentalised by Auschwitz. Adorno, or Steiner, wanted no counter-monuments, for they would be an evidence of culture which they simply are not. The tragedy of the Muslims in India, ironically, is they lack even this monumentality. They have instead, as Jairus Banaji says, a seriality. They do not have thousands and thousands of little shoes crammed together to remind you of the tiny feet that evaporated in the gas chambers. Kathua is only an incident in this vast land, as was Latehar, Naroda Patiya. An incident can easily be dismissed as an accident. Can you prove there was one command that ordered these brutalities or eliminations? So, all these turn into localised phenomena. Can you prove they are a part of a design to exterminate Muslims? The acts are disparate, so are the actors and their motives. If the crime is not one, how can there be one witness account? Multiplicity of accounts are bound to contradict each other. Muslims do not have a collective witness-hood as the Jews had.
Poet claims to be a witness. But the impossibility of it must moderate his ambition. Let there be no sound, no moaning, no lament, no slogan. Let the starkness of silence, the absence of language force us to look, sharpen the faculty of our sight, look at crimes non-poetically and remove the skin of poetry.