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Writing Into the World: Essays, 1973-1987.

In 1976 Terrence Des Pres completed The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps, a landmark study commemorating the human capacity to remain sane, and the fierce determination to survive, even under the most appalling conditions. Des Pres' other two books, however, would appear only after his death. Praises and Dispraises: Poetry and Politics in the Twentieth Century (1988), focuses on how five poets -- W. B. Yeats, Bertolt Brecht, Breyten Breytenbach, Adrienne Rich, and Thomas McGrath -- have confronted "the press of the real" and the escalating violence of our murderous century.

The volume under review here, Writing Into the World: Essays 1973-1987, addresses many of the same themes and obsessions of Des Pres' previous books. Reading this posthumous collection of twenty-two essays, I was once again filled with enormous respect for the courage, moral discernment, and eloquence with which Des Pres addressed the most compelling issues of our age: the Holocaust and other genocides; the militarization and nuclearization of our culture, polity, and planet; torture and other human rights abuses; and the ostensibly limitless power of modern states to assault language, truth, and, ineluctably, their own citizens.

Perusing this volume, I felt a keen sense of loss, and more than a little sadness: not merely because Des Pres continually grapples with particularly disturbing subjects, but even more so because his impassioned, sagacious, and necessary voice is no longer here to help the rest of us face these pressing problems. Rather than unduly lament what else Des Pres might have written, however, I prefer to give thanks for what he has given us. At a time when all too many "intellectuals," educators, and humanists have chosen to remain oblivious to, or even denigrate, "politics" in their teaching and writing, Des Pres challenges us to examine the terrible costs to others -- and ultimately to ourselves -- of this complacent solipsism. If the responsibility of intellectuals remains, above all, to speak truth to power, then every intellectual and citizen would do well to ponder the writings of Terrence Des Pres.

In the concluding essay of Writing Into the World, "Memory of Boyhood" (originally published in 1973), the reader is introduced to a Terrence Des Pres very different from the sad and outraged human being who commands the first twenty-one chapters. Recounting his youthful fishing expeditions, Des Pres recalls feeling "deeply at peace" (290). He loved to fish, and during these joyous times on the river he "felt untroubled and at home, as if creation were a living whole in which I, too, took part" (295). But this "blessing of boyhood . . . depended on a way of life now largely vanished and to which in any case I cannot return. Perhaps that is why I no longer fish" (295). It is, unhappily, more than merely "a way of life" which has largely vanished. In this century, myriad plant and animal species around the world have already vanished, and environmentalists warn that millions more now face the threat of extinction. As for the planet's most imperious species, the possibility of a similar fate is becoming more and more difficult to dismiss as altogether fanciful.

That human beings might someday find themselves confronted with such a profoundly disquieting predicament was undoubtedly beyond the ken of even the most perspicacious writers of the previous century. Even as the institution of slavery continually tormented, and finally outraged, an ecologist as prophetic as Henry David Thoreau, he was nonetheless able to derive considerable solace from his continual sojourns in the wild. To nature he could always return. Living in a radically different world, we, like Des Pres, find this traditional consolation in jeopardy. A substantial and growing body of evidence suggests that the nature Thoreau and Emerson celebrated is not boundlessly resilient; rather, for the first time in human history, its capacity to continue to sustain the lives of future generations of human beings can no longer be taken for granted. "Emerson's response to nature," writes Des Pres,

was genuinely poetic, and the measure of our present loss may be judged by the degree of nostalgia rather than assent we feel when he says: "In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life -- no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair." Well, his notion of calamity isn't ours. And nature, for all its proven renovative power, could never repair the worst that might befall us. (181)

Des Pres originally wrote these words in a 1983 essay, "Self/Landscape/Grid," his contribution to a special issue of New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly devoted to "Writers in the Nuclear Age." Like the Holocaust itself, various Cold War and nuclear weapons policies that increased the likelihood of nuclear holocaust inform a great deal of Des Pres' writing. And surely he was keenly aware that even if human beings manage to avoid nuclear war, we are very capable of bringing about an environmental holocaust, albeit in a much less spectacular and more banal manner: merely by continuing to live the kinds of lives we do.

The possibility of various additional holocausts notwithstanding, most of us manage to go on with business as usual. In his essay on the ordinary human beings in a little village in southern France who heroically rescued Jews during the Holocaust, Des Pres observes that "ours is an age of aftermath and we live by an infernal logic. We are maimed in spirit by the brutality and suffering we witness, or we close off and don't give a damn, and either way our humanness diminishes" (89). Continually bearing witness to humankind's seemingly infinite capacity for demonizing, and then destroying, other human beings, Des Pres committed his life to ensuring that, at the very least, the voiceless and persecuted not be ignored and forgotten. In an introductory essay to Writing Into the World, Paul Mariani remarks that Des Pres "understood, tacitly, that one might have to pay and pay dearly for staring for as long as he had into the abyss of human evil, and that bearing witness is a serious and costly business" (xi-xii). But the costs of cynical solipsism and refusing to bear witness -- both to ourselves and to the planet's other species -- may be much greater yet.

Until his death in the fall of 1987, Des Pres taught in the English Department at Colgate University. Because we live in a world where writers and many other unfortunate human beings in dozens of countries are routinely imprisoned, tortured, and murdered, when we teach "literature," we perforce also teach "politics." Poetry and politics are "in collision." Yet, as Des Pres points out in his essay on the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, "most students of Anglo-American poetry have been trained in principle to distrust political vision in art -- as if Milton, Shelley, and Blake had never writ a word. But poetry of this other kind is as valid as the sort we have been instructed to defend, and it may even be, in times as vicious as ours, more valuable" (34). Even as he appreciated the importance of first-rate writing, Des Pres could not solipsistically confine himself to the niceties, nuances, and subtleties of the text merely; there was also the (often murderous) context that had to be confronted. For writers like Hikmet, who spent a great deal of time in Turkish prisons between 1928 and 1938, "there can be little room for thinking of art as something divorced from politics" (35).

For countless additional victims of state terror in the twentieth century, this unremarkable fact would also be painfully obvious. So many of us, however, ostensibly believe that these indissolubly linked realms can be bifurcated. In his essay "Channel Fire: Hardy and the Limits of Poetry," Des Pres cites Elaine Scarry's extraordinary book, The Body in Pain, which accentuates that during interrogation sessions the torturer's purpose is neither to detect lying nor to discover information. Rather, the sequence of questions is intended to ascertain the precise point at which the victim can no longer speak. Reduced to anguished, nonsensical cries, many victims of torture insist that this absolute political intrusion is worse than death itself.

Des Pres points out that, like terrorism, torture in the hands of oppressive regimes is often rooted in a politics of despair. He again cites the nuanced analysis of Scarry, whose examination of torture's structure reveals that it is a desperate ritual performed by unstable governments craving the illusion of absolute power. According to historians of the subject, torture had all but disappeared by the early part of this century. But today, even as we celebrate "the new world order," dozens of governments are permitting the torture of their own citizens. Moreover, this once moribund barbarism could become more pervasive yet if -- as appears likely -- worsening demographic and environmental trends generate additional instability in international politics.

The United States, of course, has supported, and continues to support, more than a few nations that torture their own citizens. Des Pres reminds us of the American connection

not to moralize in the usual useless way but only to point out that we, who pride ourselves on our democratic institutions and have a "voice" in governing and in the making of policy abroad as well as at home, we are, all of us, thereby granting approval (and sending military and economic aid) when our nation's leaders make allowance for the politics of terror in cases we consider "friendly." (241)

Failing to use our voices, and thus ensuring that only "official" and "expert" pronouncements will be heard, we necessarily become complicitous in the great evils of our time. In his essay on 1984, "Orwell and the O'Brienists: An Aside on Criticism in the Academy," Des Pres reminds us of one of the most damaging repercussions of the Cold War: "the struggle of memory against power deteriorates further in power's favor" (206). Periodic proclamations of the end of the Cold War notwithstanding, this deterioration persists. The militarization of knowledge continues apace. Near the end of his Orwell essay Des Pres asks, "Is literature, as Kenneth Burke once put it, 'equipment for living,' and do we, or do we not, stand up for the pedagogic power of truth?" (226). Or, in an age of pervasive cynicism, do we, or do we not, any longer even believe in this power? Des Pres writes that for many of us "truth has become an unword, a term seldom seen in our professionally authorized publications; but a word nonetheless that in the world of double-think and the memory hole still retains its archaic authority" (226). But in any culture of silence and lying, that a word like truth ultimately "will prevail is not guaranteed" (226).

Des Pres returns to this cardinal problem in his incisive essay "On Governing Narratives: The Turkish-Armenian Case." The truth about the 1915 Armenian genocide has become yet another casualty of Cold War politics; because both Ankara and Washington have evinced that they are "dedicated less to truth than to power," and because too many of us simply assume that there must be two sides to every question, an issue that until quite recently seemed to be beyond dispute is now being shamelessly contested. The narratives of power and empire are once again effacing the narrative of truth. For those who subscribe to the narrative of power and have only short-term memories, the criterion for truth becomes, quite simply, "consistency with system. Truth bends to that which is consistent with the program of empire, and what we see, when we observe the Turkish denial of the Armenian tragedy, is a small but vigorous example of the program in action" (258).

Does Des Pres find any grounds for realistic hope for those of us living in the final decade of this genocidal century? He notes that when Kant exhorted, "Dare to know!" many educated elites who were previously predisposed to blindly serving their political masters became considerably less tractable vis-a-vis state power. Unfortunately, only two centuries after the era of independent knowledge and critical thinking was launched,

the politicization of knowledge is again gaining ground. We cannot escape this predicament, but neither are we necessarily its absolute victims. If knowledge caters to power, the case is also, as Foucault makes clear, that power depends on knowledge -- a small wedge of hope, but one we cannot surrender. At stake is whether or not we wish to be menials, for at the very least, scholars who spend their resources defending the honor of nation states serve something other than the truth. (260)

Near the end of "Governing Narratives," Des Pres briefly comments on Ronald Reagan's visit to Bitburg, where he accorded the perpetrators and victims of genocide equal status. "Neither history nor conscience," writes Des Pres,

was as important to the leader of Western power as a quick fix of relations with German leaders, West Germany being a vassal state to be kept at almost any price. . . . Turkey's denial and Reagan's dismissal, of two of the century's worst crimes -- are not only related, not only connected intimately, but are identical as signs of the narrative of power, in which knowledge serves the state and truth is what world leaders say it is. (261)

Des Pres suggests that perhaps the best solution for scholars who are repulsed by politics would be "to revive the adversary stance of eighteenth-century philosophes like Voltaire or Diderot and take up an oppositional or antithetical style of inquiry. What this means in practice is to proceed with doubt toward all things official. Suspension of belief has always been our right, but like other rights, this one needs defending" (256).

All too often, however, suspension of belief has degenerated into either an undifferentiated skepticism -- where virtually all discourses are summarily dismissed as lies -- or outright cynicism. If a critical oppositional stance does demand eschewing all dogmas and unexamined ideologies, it need not nihilistically despair of the possibility of discerning the truth and acting on it. What we especially need, then, is a healthy, discriminating skepticism -- which is profoundly different from the prevailing cynicism and nihilism -- and a renewed faith that the kinds of work we are capable of doing, as scholars, educators, or intellectuals, really can effectively combat the most dehumanizing and baleful excesses of state power. And while thoughtful citizens of every nation ought to read Writing Into the World, it can serve as an especially important corrective for the denizens of "the world's only remaining superpower," who have been conditioned to believe that unchecked state power could not emerge, let alone flourish, in a country as "democratic" as their own.

"While some among us resort to cynicism, fatalism, the doubtful benefits of immersing in the destructive element," writes Des Pres in "Channel Fire," "others of us continue to ask why, as if still we could be shocked, unnerved anew by each day's ugly news, surprised, maybe, by a compassion we had thought to be, along with empathetic imagination, in very short supply" (230). Did Des Pres himself succumb to despair? asks Elie Wiesel in this volume's forward. "If he did, his despair was geared to sustain in others a possible need to act in order to justify the necessary hope" (ix).

In an era that more and more human beings seem to view -- and sometimes even welcome -- as apocalyptic, both hope and empathetic imagination do indeed seem to be in very short supply. Writing Into the World, like Des Pres' earlier works, helps us to appreciate that not only our humanity, but our very survival, necessitates that we now assiduously cultivate and nurture these uncommon virtues. Above all, Writing Into the World is a book that should encourage educators in the humanities to begin asking why the kinds of questions and issues raised by Des Pres -- obviously matters of surpassing importance -- have received so little attention in the highly contentious canon and "political correctness" debates of recent years.

If it is because we have concluded that we are powerless to do anything about the most crucial issues of our time, it might also be time to begin asking why so many of us have come to embrace such a pessimistic ideology, and why we so frequently deny, or fear, the power that we do indeed have. Perhaps if we can honestly acknowledge just how cynical and despairing we have allowed ourselves to become, it will finally be possible for us to begin liberating sufficient energy to combat this pernicious mindset, which pervades our profession, our nation, and Western culture itself, and is at the very heart of all the genuine crises we now face.
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Author:Zins, Daniel
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Words:2772
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