|Linda Gascrif’s visual poem appears in a September 2005 edition of the Times Literary Supplement:|
“… I give you blank space
Only a few weeks from then, a Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten had run a series of cartoons that depicted the Muhammad in a satirical manner. Islam has always had a strong tradition of aniconism, and the cartoons were expeditiously labeled as blasphemous, based on which a fatwa was issued against the cartoonists. The incident ensued a fashionable debate between creative expression (or expression per se) and inclemency of religious (and social) proscriptions. The newspaper denounced the reaction to their cartoons claiming that they were not to disenfranchise Muslim population or to belittle god, but to make them an equal part of the Danish satire tradition. A bigger debate about self-censorship in the modern world was also born.
Deeper south in the restless Israel-Palestine, poetry is impulsive and loud, but manages to be theologically blind, to articulate a phenomenal depth of personal and political experiences that are forced upon by circumstances of violent conflict. A deadening struggle of ‘being’ becomes the thematic preoccupation of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry: “I have a name without a title / and the color of poetry is coal-black.” Even when the poetry is not about Islam or Judaism, or when its religious convictions are oversighted, it remains incontestably political, as if its aspiration is to ‘do’ something for proper peace between Israel and Palestine. An echo of the same kind of aspiration is found in the literature written in the earliest of our three considerations: Jewish novelists, poets and war-reporters from the World War II and cold war era, whose trusts and sympathies were inexorably linked to the Jewish in the Soviet Union. Their work glistened with reality, delaminated Soviet practices and demanded emancipation of the Soviet Jewry. The politburo found the political nature of their work so threatening that Mikhail Suslov explained to Vassily Grossman; the ideological chief at politburo to the novelist who spearheaded the Jewish Anti-Fascist Movement:
“Why should we add your book to the atomic bombs that our enemies are preparing to launch against us?… Why should we publish your book and begin a public discussion as to whether anyone needs the Soviet Union or not?” 1
At some point, what was incipiently only a kind of ‘resistance literature,’ becomes in an unwarrantable manner, a kind of ‘resistance towards literature’ – a kind of censorship. It is essential to outline what behavioral counteraction is responsible for creating that ‘resistance towards literature’. Is that counteraction explainable in a heteronomous world? Is censorship ethical? To answer these questions, it is also critical to enquire what created the action for the counteraction to be made possible: What is the nature of this resistance literature? It may be worthwhile to recall here those ideas of enlightenment that reasoned for freedom of expression with a certain litheness and tact. One of its principal tacticians, Immanuel Kant is relevant for a modern trial yet again. We will rephrase and transfer our question to him: Is it possible to fancy absolute freedom of expression in the modern world, as it involves essentially uncensored views on religion, state and society? Does the Kantian freedom of expression depend on its ability to resonate with what domain of consciousness, private or public, it’s applied to? If so, is that freedom any freedom? The readily acceptable answers are no, yes and it isn’t.
In Kantian terms, an argument henceforward will introduce a case for the counteraction as due to disruptive noumena– a definitive category that could be appended to every such action that is a political expression not based upon mathematical or logical reality, and that disrupts or disagrees with a norm or an ideological touchstone. Danish cartoons in Jyllands-Posten,Darwish’s poetry and Soviet Jewish literature are all examples of political expressions that both shake an ideology, and is based out of pure intellectual intuition. 2 All kinds of expressions against a norm or an ideology is generated by what Kant would call alterations in someone’s perception or “sense-cognizance towards its object.” 3 Knowledge for him, was a “phenomenon” that was built upon “non-objectionable” (and reasoned) derivatives of interactions with anything that appeared to the senses. This knowledge was derivative, and was therefore based on a priori (or what was precedently composed). A judgment of reason, thereupon, became inapplicable to everything that was in the realm of “indescribable” or “metaphysical” which he called “noumenon.” 4 All noumena were unknowable as they were not observable occurrences but “ideas of a philosophical mind.” 5 Poetry, pamphlets, cartoons, novels, critical theory and almost every discipline under philosophy become noumenal actualities of the world, to which the salient ‘non-objectionableness’ of his definition of human knowledge is irrelative. Even by Kant’s own rigorous trials of human understanding, the deficiency of his enlightenment theory to explain what to do with polemical judgments of reason with unorthodox-intellectual-political-expression, or disruptive noumena, is the bane of why absolute freedom of expression is an unyielding enterprise.
An interesting observation here is that Schopenhauer, one of Kant’s foremost critics also fails to answer how a state should deal with disruptive noumena. However, he undertakes a facultative project to establish his meaning of the term ‘noumena’ against Kant’s:
“But it was just this understood difference between abstract knowledge and knowledge of perception that [Kant] ignored: What is thought (noumenon) to what is perceived reality (phenomenon).[…] Kant, who […] entirely neglected the thing for the expression of which those words phenomena and noumena had already been taken, now takes possession of the words, as if they were still unclaimed, in order to denote by them his things-in-themselves and his phenomena.” 6
Our definition of ‘noumenon’ consorts more closely with Schopenhauer than with Kant, and remarkably so, as ideological exercises in poetry, novels and cartoons are inarguable to be seen as ‘things-in-themselves’ since their antecedental existence isn’t defined. There was no ‘poetry as black as coal’ before Darwish thought so, a Muhammad holding a mirror before Jyllands-Posten published that cartoon or a rendering of this thought anywhere before Soviet Jewish poet and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky wrote it down:
“… I was born and grew up in the Baltic marshland
by zinc-gray breakers
marched on in twos.”7
Modern conflict has created a diversity of human experiences, and these experiences despite their complexities, are almost fatally in need of expression. Literature has acted and suffered as a carrier of these expressions, beyond which the role of literature is often just as swiftly measured in formalistic history as its political possibilities are left to intellectual disputation. It would be proving ignorance of this diversity if one were to conflate literary expressions contained in Jyllands-Posten cartoons, Darwish’s poetry and Soviet Jewish writings as results of transgressive actualities created by the same kind of conflict. While these expressions certainly result from transgressions – like the ones Adorno famously summarizes in a before Auschwitz / after Auschwitz paradigm – they are born out of three different, but not unrelated species of conflict. To enable ourselves to understand, if restricting freedom of expression is passable in a heteronomous world as an inherent subcultural human inadequacy, we will lay an important theoretical substratum to view all three of our considerations as disruptive noumena.
We will go from Mahmoud Darwish, to Jyllands-Posten, to Soviet Jewish writing, as a kinesthetic ladder does: from the mildest political refrain to the fiercest rebellion in words. A relentless debate among poetry critics is if they should study a poet through his engagement with his own self, or through his engagement with the ‘poet’ – that is someone whose poetic-consciousness, and not self-consciousness is his instructive faculty. Darwish’s poetic-consciousness could be broadly split into two metaphysical indexes: space and identity. “I have always lived as a nonperson, […] a drowning animal in disguise of an individual …” said Darwish in an interview about his life (Darwish, 1997: Documentary) 8 For Patrick Sylvian, his space is “the absence of his space, his freedom, the Palestinian freedom” and his identity is that of a poet “who travels from port-to-port to find his home”. 9 “Personal and political anxiety” along with “dashed hope” and “lost memory” become the most paradoxically distant and close accord between the poet and his political poetic-consciousness. He writes, in the last few lines of Cadence Chooses Me:
“Whenever I listen to the stone I hear
the cooing of a white pigeon
gasp in me:
And whenever I see the zanzalakht trunk
on the way to the clouds,
I hear a mother’s heart palpitate in me:” 10
It will be clever to note here, the use of the Hebrew term zanzalakht that also appears as-it-is in the Arabic manuscript. This is a political statement, as Yvett Neisier explains, “… some Palestinian poets who learned Hebrew in Israeli prisons — as a language of oppression — have incorporated Hebrew vocabulary into their poetry as a poetic relic.”11 The use of Hebrew to make a political statement is more resultantly used by fellow poet Samih Al-Qasem, where the sound cry of ‘b’seder’ is shown as an admission of Israeli guilt by an indicatively Jewish voice:
“Are you skilled in the slaughter of doves?
Are you skilled in breaking bones?
Many Palestinian poets, including Darwish were banned from being taught in Israeli schools, and Israeli scholars put forward many charges of anti-Semitism. Due to his mellow, emotional approach to the political issue of Israel-Palestine, many Arab countries have also restricted publication of Darwish’s poetry citing his approach to be too humanistic to inspire a revolution, and therefore detrimental to the Arab future. His poetry was also cited in the Israeli Knesset by Sar Yitzhak Shamir to assent the unnerving Palestinian cry for them to leave Israel: “So leave our land / our shore, our sea / our wheat, our salt, our wound”(Jaggi). 13 Before we launch an inquiry into how Darwish’s poetry has sufficient political stimulant and ideological dissidence to be located in the same neighborhood of meaning as a disruptive noumenon, the following poem from Darwish himself eminently clears his position on poetry’s political possibility:
Don’t write poetry as history,
because the weapon is the historian.
And the historian doesn’t get fever chills
when names his victims,
and doesn’t listen to the guitar’s rendition.
And history is
the dailiness of weapons
prescribed upon our bodies.14
While it is easier to think that a disruption to political thought is created by a more strife heterodoxy, or at least a more efficacious narrative interrogation, poetry’s nauseous and sensitive effects are fearfully vast and long-lasting, and often belligerent states to constrain its freedom. The emotional and the anxious, thence, works by evincing poignancy. Darwish’s poetry is poignant and powerful, perhaps too powerful for the impressionable young Israelis and Palestinians, where lives rouse the human propensity to revolt on a daily basis.
A prominent critic of Darwish’s works, Hala Nassar believes that Darwish has pioneered the resistance. His landscapes were full of soldiers, refugees, blood of the wounded, rifles, and tanks to depict the armed resistance of the Palestinian struggle. “When Darwish writes, ‘… why did you leave the horse alone?’ he anticipates a new age, the age of revolutions.”15 Edward Said called Mahmoud Darwish “politically invaluable to Palestine.” 16
Revolution, any which way, was not even a distant aspiration of the twelve cartoonists when they drew Muhammad in Jyllands-Posten. Yet it disrupted an ideological precept, and created wave after wave of violent riots that clearly illustrates how forbidding exigencies of social rule excise the freedom of expression. Our second of the three considerations, is by choice different – an example of disruptive noumena of body-politic. A disruption in a Kantian space is often recognized as a citizen’s defection from ideological exercises normative to the state, thereby inviting a retaliatory counteraction by the ‘activator’ (usually the state) involving practices like exiling, imposing sanctions and executions.
A disruptive noumenon of body-politic is different, as it’s entirely immersed in the diagram of state-politic, that is, both actions and counteractions are carried out by ideological pole-masses and the state is not involved. An enormous volume of literature has been a victim of this form of censorship, where social and religious asperities have detracted absolute freedom of expression. Since this form of detraction is usually caused by beliefs and dogmas, its effects are global rather than regional, and it poses the greatest threat to attainment of absolute freedom of expression.
Counteractions to the cartoons of Mohammad are an example of disruptive noumena of body-politic due to a) the non-involvement of the Danish government or any of its bodies in creating the political stimulant or responding to it; b) its effects reverberating globally, inciting new humanist debates at every level around freedom of expression, religious intolerances and self-censorship, but more relevantly, c) the singular perception of these cartoons as disserving religious pluralism thereby making them culpable of disrupting the norm. An important question is raised: How to respect religious diversity without violating the rights to freedom of expression?
Christian F. Rostbøll has a solution that does not take much effort to disagree with. In his essay Autonomy, Respect and Arrogance in Danish Cartoons Controversy,Rostbøll suggests: “exercise humility and treat vulnerable religious groups with respect.” 17 Not only that, he also foregrounds this argument in the Kantian conception of autonomy, in the sense that every citizen will have to redefine his political self-understanding to accept religious pluralism. This is also an argument Bruno Bauer makes in On the Jewish Question 18 where he asks of the German Jews to redefine their political self-understanding as human beings who stand in humility to state, and not to religious complexes, therefore accepting religious pluralism. By eliminating a sense of theological hierarchy, Rostbøll makes an argument that is not a solution but a sedative, since in order to redefine one’s political self-understanding, one will have to undertake a doctrinal route to understanding and respecting religious pluralism. To have a doctrine to follow in self-realizing as a political citizen, is the very occasion of retracting true individual freedom and reasoning faculties, which we have to circumvent.
One of the cruelest instances of retracting individual freedoms occurred infamously in the former Soviet Union. Prose and poetry from Soviet Jewish people from the 40s through the 70s serves for a long meditation over how freedom of expression is endangered by state-politic directly. Vasily Grossman remains the preeminent voice of the Soviet Jewish community. The publication of his pamphlet The Ukrainian Jews marked the moment in history when Grossman became anti-Soviet – a difficult role to carry in the Soviet Union. No less than half a million Jews were already killed by the Soviet forces by this time. As a journalist, Grossman covered one of the first instances of racist intolerances towards Jews, as well as the colossal injustice that was the holocaust. He writes in The Ukrainian Jew:
“If the murdered people could be revived for an instant, if the ground above Babi Yar in Kiev or Ostraia Mogila in Voroshilovgrad could be lifted, if a penetrating cry came forth from hundreds and thousands of lips covered in soil, then the Universe would shudder.” 20
Soviet Jewish narratives were confrontationally naked, brimming with bellicose outcries regarding their own rights as equal citizens. Almost all of Soviet Jewish writers were executed, and hundreds of manuscripts were destroyed. Even in the most monumental of examples that illustrate a widespread slaughter of freedom to express, we can plot a socio-anthropological action/counteraction materiality. Grossman, Brodsky and many other Soviet Jewish tale-tellers were disruptors of an ideological norm of racist intolerance and socialism, and wrote stories and poetry from intellectual intuition, a ‘noumenal’ realm that is not invulnerable to objectionableness.
Correspondingly, Darwish’s poetry and cartoons in Jyllands-Posten fall prey to the same socio-anthropological action/counteraction materiality – the inadequacy of human beings to cease to create political expressions out of intellectual intuition, and the inadequacy of the activator (either the state or the ideological pole-mass) to subsume that political disruption. Every time a disruptive noumenon enters public consciousness, an activator will try to suppress it. If the disruptive nounema have theological dimensions, a sedative is needed to avoid violent conflict born out of religious intolerance, often by Kantian self-limitation.
In a heteronomous world – to answer the question we have previously raised – is restraining freedom of expression passable as a result of an inherent subcultural human inadequacy? It probably (and unfortunately) is, but to answer the question as vast as this will require more subcultures than just three, and something more than literary experiences on the counterpoise. At the same time, if for once, we shut eyes to the vastness of the question, we’ll see that the congruity of the answers raised by studying literary experiences alone, foretells how advancing this debate could be, when picked up at a purely sociological level.
1Gessen, Keith; Under Seige. The New Yorker. March 6, 2006; accessed July 11, 2007.Pg 100-121
2Cf: Kant, Immanuel. Answering the Question “What is Enlightenment?” 1784.
3Kant, Immanuel, Werner S. Pluhar, and Patricia Kitcher. Critique of Pure Reason. Indianapolis, Ind: Hackett Pub. Co, 1996. Print.Pg 17
6.Schopenhauer, Arthur; The World as Will and Representation. Dover edition. 1966. Print.Pg 122
7Brodsky, Joseph; A Part of Speech. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980.
8Bitton, Simone; Mahmoud Darwish as Land is Language. Documentary Film. France, PDJ Productions: 1997.
9Darwish, Mahmoud; The Butterﬂy’s Burden. Washington: Copper Canyon Press. 2007.Pg 139
11 Neisier, Yvett; The Dialogue of Poetry: Palestinian mid Israeli Poets Writing Through Conflict and Peace. Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture. Vol. 7 Nos 1&2, 2000. Print.Pg 14
12Hadidi, Subbi. “Mahmoud Darwish’s Love Poem: History, Exile, and the Epic Call.” Mahmoud Darwish: Exile’s Poet. Ed. HalaKhamis&Najat Rahman. Massachusetts: Olive Branch Press. 2008.
13 Jaggi, Maya; “Profile: Mahmoud Darwish – Poet of the Arab world”, The Guardian, 8 June 2002 [http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4428829,00.html]
14Sylvain, Patrick; Darwish’s Essentialist Poetics in a State of Siege, Human Architecture: Journal Of The Sociology Of Self-Knowledge, vii, Special Issue, 2009.Pg 212
15 Darwish, Mahmoud; Memory For Forgetfulness: August. Beirut, 1982. Berkley: University of California Press. 1995.
16 Nasar, Halla; Interview with Mahmoud Darwish: On the Possibility Poetry at a Time of Siege. Mahmoud Darwish: Exile’s Poet. Ed. HalaKhamis&Najat Rahman. Massachusetts: Olive Branch Press. 2008.Pg 90
17 Darwish, Mahmoud; Victims of a Map: A Bilingual Anthology of Arabic Poetry. London: SAQI Books. 1995.Pg iii
18 Rostbøll, Christian F.; Autonomy, Respect, and Arrogance in the Danish Cartoon Controversy. Political Theory, Vol. 37, No. 5 (October 2009), pp. 623-670.
19 Baueur, Bruno; Die Judenfrach. 1893.
20 Grossman, Vasily; “In The War” and Other Stories. Trans Andrew Glikin-Gusinsky. [http://sovlit.net]Pg 20
Siddharth Soni is finishing M.A. in English Literature from Delhi University.