The conversations in Bidoun read like fiction, and “give” in ways that appeal to me: The conversants are aware of each other, each a strong character to the other. They don’t know where their talk will lead, but they want to find out, and they enjoy the dialogue, the way fictional characters should. In a Bidoun conversation, I never feel the participants are coolly interviewing each other. They’re listening, trying to understand.
With several people, over the years, I’ve had only one conversation, but it was profound, because we revealed or explained something that meant something to us. We never talked again, never have (now one is dead), except to say, Hello, how are you, in a chance meeting, and smile warmly, both remembering it. Then walk on.
I think about how strange trust is, sometimes how quickly it can settle in, or be lost, but a conversation with a stranger might be trusted and significant forever.
Agamben and de la Durantaye discuss their love and respect for animals, a subject I find limitlessly exciting. Agamben says they watch us. I watch animals as much if not more than I watch humans. I don’t know how they feel about that. Maybe human beings’ instincts aren’t as primed or keen as other animals in our phylum, but the development of language emerged from a need that early humans had. Maybe that need derived from an instinct other animals didn’t have, because their instincts functioned better. I don’t know.
Using language can be perilous. In the conversation between Thomas Keenan and Trevor Paglen, they know that. So they talk about what they’re talking about, they explain the language they use. They consider and reconsider, and arrive at unexpected ideas, places. Keenan starts, “I’ve been thinking that this is an unusually interesting time to talk — Bush sends the ghosts into Gitmo.” I’m instantly there: ghosts into Gitmo. Paglen and he discuss various ideas about visibility and invisibility, in relation to, but not only, activism. Keenan says human rights groups have to contend with “ghosts” more than they do. That revealing isn’t an end, because when revelations occur (I’m thinking of Snowden), nothing might change. Revelation can’t be an end in itself, when it doesn’t elicit action.
Bidoun once asked me, “What do you want to do for the magazine?” and I said, Talk with Etel Adnan. Adnan’s writing is direct, indirect, harsh, narrative, lyrical, impressionistic, and more. Her use of sun/son, for instance, is both metaphorical and actual, sometimes homophonic, sometimes not; everything lies in context. Adnan’s writing is profoundly about the polis, or political: It is inherent in the language she chooses, but the language she chooses isn’t chosen to serve a single purpose.
Our conversation, our two days of talking, has stayed with me, and I will always keep Etel Adnan close. I thank Bidoun for commissioning the piece; but more, for facilitating and publishing all these conversations. I thank Bidoun for recognizing the perilousness of language, but even so representing it. The greater peril is not looking for words, not finding understanding, in this fraught, fertile, sadly complicated global world of ours.
Giorgio Agamben is the author of more than twenty-five books and is extremely well known. My dog, Bear, is not. Bear is six months old at the time of writing and is exceptional in many regards. He is funny and fierce. His mother is an Akita, a Japanese breed once used to hunt large game such as deer, wild boar, and Asian black bears. (For a time possession was restricted to the Japanese aristocracy.) Special outfits were required for the handlers, and a special language employed to address the dogs. Times have changed.
Of his father, not much is known.
I found Bear on a dusty porch in a very gang-controlled part of East LA. He was seven weeks old and in the possession of a kind but extremely laconic older gentleman who had fought in the Korean War. The pups belonged to his daughter, who left them with him for reasons he was disinclined to share. Bear and his sister Nagoya were being kept in a large crate, all day, every day, and were generally having the dog version of a very Dickensian early life. I had to make a decision on site. Someone had already claimed his sister and would be coming to pick her up shortly. Puppies are not plentiful here, let alone majestic-looking little hairballs with proud hind parts. I called one friend for an opinion and she told me to get out of there fast. I called another, who told me to take the dog with me.
Bear was, and remains, ridiculously cute. He appeared on the main web page for a major music festival because I happened to be walking by their pre-party when their photographer was coming out for a smoke. A literal majority of people during the first month of our time together made some sort of exclamation. Many of them were articulate. One day, in the space of three hours, I was told: “He just made my day”; “That just made my week”; and the beautiful and cryptic, “Everything is better now.” Having just moved to Los Angeles, I felt like I had some insight into what it would be to hang out with someone famous.
I was raised with dogs, and to some extent by them. My first memories are full of dogs and puppies, with the result that having a dog is the natural state of my world. I learn many things from my dog, including that every day is what it is and only once; that this is wonderful; that we should go to the park.
Giorgio Agamben, on the other hand: I first met in the late 1990s, in Paris, where I was a student and he a teacher. I spoke with him twice during this period, each time briefly. A decade later I wrote a book about his books. When it was finished I sent him a copy, and not long after we became friends. For a time I would see him frequently. Now I live far away and we communicate like everyone else.
Recently I was asked by the editors of Bidoun to interview him. Knowing his reticence in such matters I said I’d try, without much hope. The very next day I received an email from Agamben, urgently requesting cigarettes. The particular ones he smokes are unavailable in Italy because their American manufacturer refuses to conform to European Union law by covering their hundred-year-old package with the bellowing reminder IL FUMO UCCIDE! So I leveraged Bidoun’s desires against his affection and addiction, with the following as result.
Leland de la Durantaye: What do you think of my dog?
Giorgio Agamben: The other day I was walking in the countryside, in Tuscia, and came upon a horse in a fenced meadow. It suddenly came over to me and reached its head across the wooden paling, trying to touch me. I pulled up and gave him a handful of grass in response to his courteousness. He accepted it, though purely out of courteousness. A few moments later I ran a few strides and he immediately broke into a gallop alongside me. For the ensuing hour we communicated perfectly and profoundly. One thing this proves is that those who think that language is for communication are wrong. Language is not made for communication. It is made for something else, something perhaps more important, but also more perilous. Language is, in fact, the principle obstacle to communication, which animals know perfectly well. They watch us sometimes, filled by a strange compassion for us, caught up as we are in language. They, too, might have ventured into language, but preferred not to, knowing what might be lost. I imagine you have experienced something similar with your dog.
LD: There are ready-made images into which European intellectuals, especially learned ones, and especially philosophically learned ones, are placed, and one of these is that of the sage, the stern thinker whose wisdom has come at the cost of ease, affection, joy, the animal pleasures. Do you have a sense that others have this image of you?
GA: These images are made to protect people from the risks that come with thinking about things. The opposite is of course the case. The relation of reflection to sensation, joy, and pleasure is that it sharpens and extends each one.
LD: Does Descartes seem crazy to you? I mean that he could classify animals as automata and at the same time take such pride in his dog, Monsieur Grat — express such pleasure when Monsieur Grat sired a litter of puppies, and so on.
GA: Linnaeus: “Cartesius certe non vidit simias.” (Descartes clearly never saw a donkey.) José Bergamin, citing Pascal: “Descartes: incertain et inutile.” (Descartes: uncertain and useless.)
LD: When I was starting high school my (hippie) mother once punished me for sneaking out at night by requiring that I read Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation. Many years later I happened to be seated next to Peter Singer at an academic dinner. We had been asked to select our entrées in advance; I had selected a nonliberated animal. We naturally fell to taking about animals and he told me he didn’t have much feeling for them, which is to say his interest in the question was divorced from any particular emotional appeal. How do things stand with you and the animal kingdom?
GA: I have always known that I am an animal. As my teacher José Bergamin liked to say, Yo soy un animal. Unfortunately, the animal has been confined by an anthropological process that accords an identity to the human only by excluding the animal. What is more, I think that we should speak in such a context not only of animals. Plants, too, are alive. They are the highest form of life, infinitely superior to the so-called animals — mankind included.
LD: It seems that there are a class of things we can learn from animals that is very large, but has much to do with a time horizon. My dog was very excited about raw meat twenty minutes ago, and very frustrated about not being allowed to eat one of my shoes. Now he is asleep. I think we should all burn with that hard gemlike flame, and then let it go. What have you learned from animals?
GA: I’ll say again what I said before: I am an animal, even if I belong to a species that lives in unnatural conditions. And it seems to me at times that animals regard me with compassion. I’m touched by this, and feel something akin to shame every time an animal looks at me.
LD: At the outset of The Open: Man and Animal you speak of a vision of “mankind reconciled with its animal nature.” I know that the book itself is both a description of and a plea for that reconciliation, but could you say a bit about what it means?
GA: If the anthropological process I sought therein to analyze is founded upon an articulated division between “human” and “animal,” then their reconciliation is a philosophical task, consisting in deactivating both notions. Giorgio Colli once gave a definition of contact that seems to me prescient in this regard. Two things are in contact only when they are united by a representational void. The point at which the human and the animal are in contact is interrupted by what I have called the anthropological process.
LD: Of the many artists and intellectuals whom you have been close to — whether Italo Calvino or Patrizia Cavalli, Martin Heidegger or Guy Debord, Pier Paolo Pasolini or Ingeborg Bachmann or someone else — who was the most sensitive to animals?
GA: One you did not mention: Elsa Morante. She thought, as Kafka did, that animals were never expelled from Eden. Her cat Caruso was something of a legend. If Elsa and Kafka were right, then through animals we remain close to paradise. Given that we live in the same world, however, this means that not even we have been expelled from paradise, only that for some reason we imagine that we have been. This is why we are so hard for other animals to understand.
LD: I remember you and a painter friend once discussing a Roman parrot. Could you remind me what it said?
GA: In the late 1970s we often dined in a Roman restaurant called La Sora Lella, whose owner had a gracula religiosa, a myna bird, one of those birds that can perfectly imitate the human voice, as well as the voices of other animals. Every time I walked by the bird would greet me by saying, “Hi, how’s it going?” One time I was annoyed and replied, “You always say the same thing.” To my terror the bird said, “So do you!” It might be possible to find an explanation, but the experience was an unforgettable one.
LD: On a different note, you were part of a group of young leaders from around the world brought to Harvard one summer to be taught by Henry Kissinger. What was that like?
GA: I arrived at Harvard in July 1968, after having taken part in the final street fighting in Paris in May. I was twenty-six. One day Kissinger gave a lecture on the political situation. I remember standing up and saying with astounding shamelessness, in a loud voice, “Professor Kissinger, you understand absolutely nothing in politics.” When I returned to Italy in September I learned that he had become secretary of state of the most powerful country in the world.
LD: Is it true that one of your fellow young leaders was killed and then eaten by one of his political adversaries some time later?
GA: The participants in the Harvard International Seminar were divided into two groups: intellectuals and politicians. Both attended a seminar taught by Stanley Cavell. The young leader in question was an African who seemed to me truly wise and who later turned out to be a ferocious tyrant. As such, he was cooked and eaten by his enemies.
LD: A friend sent me this link: http://www.cafepress.com/Agamben+pet-apparel What do you think of the fact that people’s enthusiasm for you and your work has led them to make Agamben T-shirts for dogs? Do you have one? Do you want one?
LD: The first time I saw you speak you were talking about gossip — the gossip concerning St. Paul that has gathered over the many centuries since he lived. You write seriously about what are often considered unserious things — gossip, pornography, indifference. Could you say something about this?
GA: Walter Benjamin once wrote that the Messianic Kingdom can be present in the world only in forms that appear low and discredited. For this reason in his great book on Paris he concentrated his attention on things that historians had hitherto neglected: the scraps and refuse of culture. For me this is a fundamental methodological principle. What is more, we live in a society where the most beautiful things can only exist in distorted form, can be expressed only through parody.
LD: Now that you have retired, do you miss teaching?
GA: Like Ivan Ilych, I’ve always found the school to be one of modernity’s great catastrophes. I like to think and speak easily, freely, joyfully; but not to teach in a school. The place for thought is at a table, at a banquet. It is also walking in nature, listening to the things the birds or the crickets or the cicadas have to say to us. You will have recognized here the two Greek models of philosophical synousia: the Platonic symposium and the Aristotelian peripatos.
LD: You have taken extreme positions at many points in your life, from refusing to re-enter the United States after the passage of the Homeland Security Act in 2002 to declaring that “the concentration camp is the biopolitical paradigm of modernity.” How do you feel about the future?
GA: I am an archeologist to whom it sometimes falls, while excavating the past, to encounter possible futures that fill me with joy. If, on the other hand, you mean the future that those in power are preparing for the world — this does not exist, because it is the destruction of life.
LD: Looking back in later life upon his Wanderjahre, Schopenhauer deplored that “the three greatest pessimists in the world, Byron, Leopardi, and I” were all in Italy in 1819 and yet never met. Are you a great pessimist? If you were to participate in a summit of pessimists, who would you look forward to meeting there? Or, if you reject the term, why do you think that you are sometimes perceived as a pessimist?
GA: Pessimism and optimism are two psychological categories that have nothing to do with philosophical thought. Let them be left to fools. As for myself, I can say, with Marx, that “the desperate situation in which I live fills me with hope.”
In June of 2006, Bidoun invited Thomas Keenan and Trevor Paglen to launch the magazine’s Art and Politics series at New York’s PS1 Contemporary Art Center. Keenan, who teaches literary theory, media studies, and human rights at Bard College, where he also directs the Human Rights Project, has most recently been studying jihadists and their idiosyncratic uses of new media. Paglen, for his part, is an artist, writer, and self-proclaimed experimental geographer working out of the Department of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley. His work seems to defy the neat confines of discipline, and is at once social science, contemporary art, and even activism. Paglen’s most recent projects take up secret military bases, the California prison system, and the CIA’s practice of “extraordinary rendition.”
Keenan and Paglen’s work intersect in a number of ways, not the least of which is the circulation of information — how it is packaged, disseminated, hidden away. At PS1, the two took on secret prisons in particular. Here on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks and just days after President George W. Bush announced the transfer of fourteen of the CIA’s most high-profile terrorism suspects to Guantanamo Bay to be tried, they took on the current moment. Via Skype, no less.
Thomas Keenan: I’ve been thinking that this is an unusually interesting time to talk — Bush sends the ghosts into Gitmo [Guantanamo], and al-Qaeda announces a tape in which some of them appear with OBL [Osama bin Laden].
Trevor Paglen: Yes yes yes. Those things have been occupying my mind a lot this week. Let’s talk about these weird forms of visibility and invisibility.
TK: Maybe we should begin with the ghosts, and why you’ve been so interested in them and what you’ve been doing.
TP: I’ve been thinking about these ghosts quite a bit. Obviously there’s the question of the “ghost prisoners” in this “War on Terror” — a collection of who knows how many prisoners who’ve been kept “off the books,” denied access to the Red Cross, held in secret prisons and so forth. This means that the CIA and the White House have created a global infrastructure for doing this sort of thing. What I didn’t realize when I began this latest project (although I suspected from past work that this might be the case) is that there’s a whole domestic analog to all of this. For example, when you begin researching the means by which the CIA and the White House have manufactured these ghosts, you start to find an equally invisible and somehow nonexistent infrastructure embedded in the fabric of everyday life “over here.” You find, for example, aircraft companies whose boards of directors are composed of nonexistent people. You find nonexistent people who are somehow designed to disappear others. That’s how I started thinking about ghosts.
TK: I have a factual question for you. The President announced that fourteen “high-value” prisoners would be moved to Cuba and put on trial. They are indeed some very interesting people, and the jihadist forums have been extremely excited about their imminent appearance. At the same time, various news accounts noted that CIA officials had mentioned that somewhere closer to a hundred prisoners had passed through their secret camps. Do you know where, generically at least, the other eighty-five or so are now?
TP: The other prisoners are in a couple of places. First is Guantanamo. People like Binyam Mohammed went through this system of secret prisons, only to find themselves dumped off at Gitmo after years of disappearance and torture. In fact, some people in the DoD [Department of Defense] started talking about Gitmo as a dumping ground for CIA mistakes. Other prisoners have been transferred to places like Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and so forth. Most of these guys are presumably in local prisons in these countries. With the beginning of the WoT [War on Terror], the CIA essentially bought a lot of foreign intelligence services to do this sort of thing — mainly by funding these services.
TK: I like very much your word “ghost” because it specifies exactly the way in which these creatures do and don’t appear, at the same time, and because it identifies their strange past-ness, their status as memories or remnants. I think the human rights community could learn a lot if it took their ghostliness seriously, if it wasn’t entirely hamstrung by the habeas corpus mentality… because central to the War on Terror has been the military/intelligence community’s announcement that it has these people but it’s not going to say where or how they are. They have the status of open secrets, of visible invisibles.
TP: Exactly. In what ways do you think that the human rights community might reconfigure its thinking by taking ghosts seriously?
TK: By “learn a lot” I mean something like this: they are already pretty good researchers, pretty good at producing knowledge and writing it up. The human rights world excel at making things public, at exposing, revealing, displaying. You share that interest in knowledge — we talked about that at PS1 — as do I, and a case can of course be made for knowledge as a god in itself, or as testimony, bearing witness, et cetera. But human-rights activists want, rightly, more: They want the knowledge to do something, to get something done. And often they can — exposure can be an active weapon in the fight for rights. But when the object of the knowledge or the secrecy, the revelation, is already oddly public, the way these high-value guys have been, then merely revealing them and their hidden existence doesn’t do the same job.
TP: Yes, exactly. This tendency really makes me wonder if there’s a kind of latent idealism in these approaches towards activism — meaning that somehow the articulation of truths, of the idea (for example) has some kind of necessary relation to the world. I’m not saying that this isn’t so, but that it’s limited. Over the course of this project in particular, I’ve been interested in identifying places where — through the side-door so to speak — actions can be taken. There are a lot of contradictions in this world, as you can imagine, and I wonder if those contradictions represent weak points that pressure can be applied to. I’m thinking particularly of places like John Yoo’s office here at UC Berkeley, the lawyers who help the CIA set all this stuff up (and knowingly commit fraud in order to do so), or the aircraft companies that provide so many services. What do you think?
TK: That’s a very important point, and one too many left-wing critics of the GWOT [Global War on Terror] don’t attend to fully. I think one of the great interests of your projects for me has been your ability to work inside the publicly available databases and records, to use the information that’s already there, and assemble it into a pattern and a narrative that starts to make sense of otherwise very tricky things. Exploiting the seams, rather than assaulting frontally. Hmm, asymmetric.
TP: It’s counterintuitive at first — the GWOT seems so abstract, so “over there” but when you start to look under the hood, you find that it’s woven into everyday life in very real (i.e., brick-and-mortar as opposed to spectacular) ways.
TK: So, yes, there’s no monolith here. On the other hand, they (Yoo and company) are winning, at least in the domestic political sphere. (I think they’re losing seriously on the ground and in cyberspace, but that’s another discussion.) They have been able to hide and reveal simultaneously with great success, and the good work of activists and researchers has not really dented their strategies much.
TP: Well, Yoo seems pretty untouchable, but lots of people are extremely touchable — there are lots of people who enable this who are essentially small-time lawyers or small businesses. They are quite vulnerable to things like complaints with state bar and business associations and so forth. I’d be extremely interested to know about this latest video and to hear what the newsgroups are saying about it and the transfer of KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] and company to Gitmo.
TK: The new video (released to Al-Jazeera yesterday and due online any hour now) is of course timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the WTC/Pentagon attacks. It’s called The Manhattan Raid, apparently, and may be as long as ninety minutes. It features archival footage of Bin Laden meeting with a number of the September 11 hijackers, as well as the “martyrdom tapes” of two of them. It was announced with a beautiful animated gif. The gif is typical of the advance publicity operations that the al-Qaeda media arm, as-Sahab [the clouds], runs for its big releases. These things are circulated to the moderators of the Islamist forums and are stuck at the top of every page, flashing away to announce the imminent arrival of an important new tape.This one shows the characters, the topic, the title, and promises that it’s coming soon…
TP: Very interesting. Tell me about the tape this week and what happened.
TK: I know everyone always says that Bin Laden and company are media-savvy, sophisticated, and all the rest, so much so that it’s a cliché, but it’s true — and I don’t think that a lot of people recognize how innovative and smart they are. They are certainly creating, actively, a global online community, in many languages (not just Arabic), that makes up a sort of counter-public sphere… using the strategies, or moves derived from them, of the typical information-commerce cyber- and TV-scape.
TP: This is really interesting. It seems to me that there are so many ways in which OBL and company use these tapes much in the same way that the White House uses secret information. Disclosing it in ways that are timed for specific political effects. Do you see anything homologous?
TK: Yes, there are lots of analogies… most notably that the tape is of equal use to OBL and to GWB [George W. Bush]. Each, these days, is interested in reminding every one about September 11 and who was responsible for it. What happens? The gif arrives, and that’s all… no press release, no text, no nothing beyond the flashing sequence. It circulates worldwide almost instantly, and then within a few hours Al-Jazeera has an advance copy (I’m not clear if it’s the whole thing or excerpts) that gives hints of the content, demonstrates that it has English subtitles, makes clear who’s in it, and further reminds everyone that OBL is still in charge and was the foremost responsible party for September 11.
TP: Is there information in these tapes, or are they more of “morale” boosters? Both?
TK: Information? Well, sort of. There was a lot of information in the tape that as-Sahab released on the anniversary of the July 7 London bombing — a real demonstration of AQ’s [al-Qaeda’s] authorship of the attacks, something which the UK authorities had always played down.
TP: The announcement this week of the prisoner transfer to Gitmo was extremely calculated in terms of the political effect the Bush company was trying to achieve.
TK: Well, he wants once again to take credit for September 11, to demonstrate the global reach of the organization, to inspire and fund-raise and recruit. It was a remarkable, more or less unprecedented, event, and he has yet to use up the credit he earned. I also think OBL wants to make sure that he stays on top of the jihad, that Iraq is not too distracting for his audience, that Hassan Nasrallah does not stay in the limelight too long, et cetera. There are deep internal divisions with the jihadist movement, a constant struggle for leadership, and this is a great publicity opportunity. The coincidence of the appearance of Ramzi Binalshibh and other ghosts on the tape and in Bush’s announcement suggests again that everyone sees opportunities in this anniversary… Let’s go back to your work, though, and your sense of what it is you are doing when you document, so patiently and accurately, the movement of the ghost prisoners. Can you describe a little of what you are doing, and why?
TP: Well, it’s extremely hard to document these movements in any meaningful way, but it can be done with a lot of legwork. Why do it? For me I guess it has to do with a lot of different things. The first is a kind of spatial/political question: what kinds of hidden relationships and collaborations does all of this reveal? What is the anatomy of the GWOT? I think that in some ways, you start to see some dramatic evidence of extremely unlikely allies and collaborations that have sprung up. In a sense, you’re describing a hidden landscape of sorts. That’s more a tool of seeing global politics, I suppose. On another level, I’ve also been equally obsessed by the infrastructure that you find “over here” — there are so many strange things. CIA planes acting like they’re going to Area 51 for example. Just bizarre things. Landings in places like Tulsa; cadres of pilots in rural North Carolina; airstrips in Florida. You start to see a landscape in the US that’s equally hidden. For me, this has a politics but also a strange — I don’t want to exactly say aesthetics, but something like that — it takes the familiar and makes it bizarre.
TK: Your invocation of aesthetics is important — and unusual. Activists don’t usually like to admit that there’s an aesthetic dimension to their work. On the other hand, they live and die by the aesthetics of publicity all the time, in an unacknowledged way.
TP: Ha ha. Yes. Well, I don’t consider myself an activist around these issues. At the beginning and end of the day, I think of myself as an artist. But ways of seeing are extremely crucial to politics. Sometimes I really do feel like a kind of surrealist more than anything else. Taking a lot of ideas from them and trying to do different kinds of work with them.
TK: I was looking back at my notes from our conversation at PS1 and thinking about an idea you made me have. I was interested in the fact that human rights activists always complain that they have no power, and at the same time it’s obvious that the basic norms and conventions of human rights discourse are now more or less globally accepted, that human rights have become a sort of secular religion. And on the other hand, they are powerless to stop genocides and mass slaughters (Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur), or to prevent the world’s most expressive and voluble pro–human rights democracy (our country) from effectively renouncing the Geneva Conventions and exactly that unspoken normative framework. So what do “human rights” actually do?
Various things, but chief among them might be something aesthetic, something about the laws of appearance or of perception. You made me see this: Both the jihadis and the US government are busy rejecting the well-established conventions, in different ways and to different extents, of course. And they both often try to hide that rejection, that erasure of the governing distinctions of human rights discourse (combatant/non-combatant, for instance), even while they boast about it on the side. The extremist Sunni militias in Iraq, for instance, release over-the-top communiqués about the evils of the Shias, but they never ever film their attacks on Shia civilians (their tapes, in Iraq and elsewhere, are almost always limited to attacks on military or official targets). Likewise there are no cameras in Guantanamo or Bagram or the Salt Pit. Both sides want to respect those norms at an aesthetic level. So the human-rights norms are functioning as a kind of aesthetic-regulation device, governing what you can show but not what you can do. Except it’s more complicated than an opposition between showing and doing, because the hidden doings are also made visible in their own way. Hence the ghost phenomenon.
TP: Yes, this reminds me of Marx’s beef with the young Hegelians. That ideology usually does not precede power but is rather the product of it. This is entirely related to the (sometimes) fallacy of “making visible” for its own sake, with the assumption that this has a direct bearing on power. You’ve gone into this in depth with your work on the politics of shame. It’s quite the same thing, isn’t it?
In the late 1980s, I was phoned by poet and critic Ammiel Alcalay, who urged me to hear Etel Adnan read the next night at the Graduate Center. He told me Adnan was an Arab-American poet, writer, playwright and painter, born and raised in Lebanon. Since he had never urged me to attend an event before, I decided to go. The lecture hall was filled. I remember Edward Said and his wife were in the audience. Adnan took her seat behind a table at the front, and, from the moment she began reading, her passion, great intelligence, and sensitivity to language and form felt palpable. It was a rapturous night, during which I said to myself, I’m so glad I came. Imagine if I’d missed this.
Adnan writes about exile and place, women and men, war and nature, paying homage to the beauty, complexity, and even the horrors of our lives. She is a philosophical poet. She is the author of, among others, the acclaimed novel Sitt Marie Rose, which has been translated into ten languages, including Urdu and Bosniac, and the epic poem, The Arab Apocalypse. Her paintings have been exhibited internationally and are included in various museums and collections. Adnan’s plays have been produced in San Francisco, Paris, Caen, Dusseldorf, and Beirut, her poetry set to music by composers such as Gavin Bryars, Henry Threadgill, Tania León, Annea Lockwood, and Zad Moultaka. Her latest books are In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country and The Master of the Eclipse.
After I heard her read that night, I made contact with her. I saw her twice in New York City, when she was on her way to Paris. I phoned her there a couple of times, and we maintained an infrequent correspondence. I read her books. Her partner, Simone Fattal, who is the publisher of the Post-Apollo Press, always sent me her new books, and Etel always signed them affectionately. Having the chance to talk with Etel Adnan for Bidoun, at length and in her home in Sausalito, was a gift.
Lynne Tillman: You’ve written that you can never separate experience from theory.
Etel Adnan: We don’t just speak out, we order our thinking. If that’s what’s meant by theory, then you can’t escape it. If one means, rather, that any time one speaks, what one says is predetermined — for example, this is my way of speaking, I will conform everything to that style and approach — it is not only bad, but it also doesn’t work. It is why, sometimes, my work seems to go in many different directions. It could be harmful, but I can’t do otherwise. But to do that doesn’t mean not to have direction in one’s thinking or to be lost. I want to accept things as they come and see what to do with them.
LT: One’s own experience of the world might always fall into a category or theory one believes.
EA: I accept contradiction when it happens. Today I may say something philosophical — if I can talk of the idea of “being” separated from objects, then I can also say there is no “being” outside manifestation. One month later I might write its opposite and be aware of it. That doesn’t bother me, because I seek new connections. Of course, you must have some points of reference in your life.
LT: War is an enduring point of reference for you.
EA: I have become politically nonviolent. I’ve reached a point that this feels right. I will not compromise that. On other matters, I feel a kind of absolute, if we can use that word—I do not accept the sexual abuse of children. But I have very few of those absolutes. Everything else is in flux.
LT: I admire writing when I feel there is an intelligence behind it, that the language is closely handled, in whatever form the writer happens to choose.
EA: I don’t privilege one approach over another. I don’t privilege it within my own works. Some people are prisoners of the decisions they make.
LT: It’s fascinating in Sitt Marie Rose, your novel about the Lebanese Civil War, the variety of styles and forms you chose. First, what does “sitt” mean?
EA: “Sitt” is an Arabic word, used in Lebanon and Syria mostly, and Egypt, to mean “madam.” It’s not formal. A girl of five years old in conversation can be “little sitt so-and-so.” “Sitt” can also be for married or single women. It’s a colloquial way to address a woman. It carries some respect.
LT: How did Sitt Marie Rose come about? When did you write it?
EA: I wrote it before the end of 1976. The event it’s based on occurred in early ’76. The Christian Phalangists kidnapped a woman whose real name was Marie Rose. People immediately recognized her when the book came out.
LT: You wrote it in French.
EA: I was in Paris and had read in Le Monde about Marie Rose Boulos’s being kidnapped. I knew she was already dead. I became upset, and wanted to write it down. You are a writer, you know one discovers through writing matters that wouldn’t occur to you otherwise. I wanted to find out — all cultures include violence — which forms the Lebanese culture has taken. We don’t know any human group in history that hasn’t been violent. I don’t believe any nation is better than any other on that score. But what attracted me to this violence was my knowledge — the young men who kidnapped, tortured, and killed her, I had grown up with them. I knew Phalangists, and she was Christian, too. Through her they wanted to teach a lesson to the various factions.
People use religion to excite people and send them to war, like Bush with the word “democracy.” It’s dogma misuse. The Phalangists were, in their minds, defending Christian values, but in fact they were defending their power against the Muslims. There are Orthodox Christians in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon. The majority of Christians in Lebanon are Catholic, so they had links with Rome, and the French, a Catholic nation. The French created a place where these Christians would have their own country — after World War I, when the big powers carved up the Middle East. But if everybody were Christian, the new country would have been too small. So they included territory inhabited by Muslims. This is the key to the Lebanese problem — the Christians of Lebanon say, and it’s true, the country was created by the French for them. But after two generations, the Christians found they were no longer a sizable majority. Today they are not the majority. It’s the source not of hatred but of the antagonism in Lebanon.
LT: Your novel shifts and flows, from politics with its varied discourses, through voices and styles. One of its brilliant inventions is the deaf-mute schoolchildren.
EA: What you call a silent majority.
LT: [Laughs] They are taught by Sitt Marie Rose. They don’t speak — she is the only one who is kind to them. The four male characters, who represent various factions of the Christians, speak — they are all anti-Muslim. Sitt Marie Rose is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
EA: Which was why she was killed.
LT: The deaf children are presented “speaking” in the first person. Throughout all the formal changes, I was able to understand where I was, who was speaking; you included politics but didn’t re-create politics. You re-imagined everything — desire, impressions, feelings.
EA: And the description of the state of war in a specific place. Politics is such an important part of our lives, whether we like it or not. Why shouldn’t it enter novels? In poetry, people mostly avoid politics. They think it’s not poetic. But The Iliad is a political work. I became an American poet by writing against the Vietnam War, I joined the movement by writing against the war, spontaneously.
I feel the first thing is to be true to oneself. Now you will say, what if you are a monster and are true to yourself? [Laughing] If you’re a monster, you’re going to be true to that self anyway. But a movement of poets against the war didn’t happen with Iraq, which is as monstrous a war and as long. Why? We are in a period when there is, funnily enough, more poetry being written in proportion to the population than during Vietnam. Poets have followed the general apathy of the Bush and Reagan years.
LT: Maybe that speaks about where poetry is in terms of its relationship to society. Some writers may feel themselves at a great distance.
EA: It’s because of the kind of poetry they are writing — a very abstract poetry. They are discovering new forms, by complicating form and by avoiding anything that would smack of a message. And, like all great writing, it can defend itself beautifully.
LT: In Virginia Woolf’s essay, “The Death of the Moth,” she observes a day moth — which lives twenty-four hours — and watches it die. By looking at it, she understands the struggle to live, the finality of death.
EA: You’re right, one can express anything, in the most unexpected way.
LT: What I want to suggest is that fiction and poetry need not be specific to a political event to embrace the effects and depredations to life because of war, violence, injustice.
EA: No. I went to Iraq twice, and, in spite of Saddam’s dark side, there was great vitality, artistic vitality — it had the biggest readership of contemporary Arabic literature. Iraq had great painters, musicians. It was the most dynamic Arab country for some thirty years, with an excellent medical system, the best in the Arab world. So the destruction of it…
Simultaneously, Saddam was an excessive character. You were for him or against him, no in between. In that sense, he was a total dictator. Still, something was happening there. There was the same oppressive rule in Syria, but without the counterpart in culture Iraq had. When America attacked Iraq, each time they moved, they destroyed it. I didn’t feel my best friends, poets or non-intellectuals, really cared. Though when you think about it, there is so much going on in the world, and Americans cannot care for everything. But this is something that America started and did.
LT: There’s a passage from Sitt Marie Rose, which, though it came out here in 1982, could have been written now: “In this society where the only freedom of choice, when there is any, is between different brands of automobiles, can any notion of justice exist and can genocide not become an instable consequence.” It articulates the horrible sense of possibility of genocide.
EA: Hatred can lead to genocide. You don’t win, so you will tomorrow, or after tomorrow, but you’ll keep going. There is no real rationale to it. The US is not immune, but prosperity made America relax. If this financial crisis goes on, ten people will fight for one job, and race or religion might lead to, “How come the Chinese and the Latinos have a job and I don’t?” To a degree, American prosperity created a certain benevolence.
America is interesting — everything is true about it, and its opposite is true. There can be an atmosphere of benevolence, but the word “socialism” is taboo. In one way, we have a people’s country, there’s no aristocracy. We have a democracy in many ways, really. But people are horrified by universal health care, which Europe and Canada have as a matter of course.
LT: I believe that existentialism as a philosophy is important to you.
EA: Yes, I went to Paris as a student in 1950. Sartre was the great thing, and I had not heard of him in Beirut. It was like a miracle. I had come from a culture where we lived on a more basic level.
My father was highly educated for those days, my mother was not. We had no books at home. My mother had the Gospels, she was a Greek from Smyrna — Greek Orthodox. My father was a Muslim from Damascus in the Ottoman Empire. He had the Qur’an, he knew it by heart. Amazingly, the books existed on a shelf next to each other. So I have no problem with coexistence. I grew up with it. People finished their education — if they were lawyers they went to law — but that generation didn’t have books in the home.
In Paris, everything was new, astonishing, until I was thirty. I was in a stage of discovery for thirteen years, until I started teaching, which gave me a distance from reality. I was immersed in reality until I was thirty.
LT: How do you mean, “reality”?
EA: In the present — that type of reality. When I read Sartre, I was floored because I’d attended French Catholic schools, they were the only ones you could go to, and they hammered us with religion — you’re moral because you follow religion. Sartre said you could be moral without being religious.
LT: Did you hear Sartre speak?
EA: No, but his philosophy changed my life. Its second idea was about responsibility, and that is empowerment. I didn’t have the word or concept then, but it’s what existentialism offered people. Coming from a Catholic school, I know firsthand that you are meant to follow the church, the priest — then you are a good person. You go to confession. By saying you are responsible, you are your decisions — I think that’s liberation. It’s not, “Obey and shut up.”
LT: I’m curious how your parents met. A Muslim from Syria, a Greek Catholic from Smyrna.
EA: They met during WWI, in Smyrna, in the street. He followed her. They got married. He already had a wife and three children in Damascus, but he didn’t tell her. She was so poor that, for her, it was a fairy tale. He was governor of Smyrna, a top officer; he’d been Atatürk’s classmate, because though my father had been stationed in Damascus, the sole military school was in Istanbul. Then the war was lost, and my parents went to Beirut. From there it was downhill.
LT: They were poor, but you were well educated.
EA: I was educated because I went to a French school. But about my social class — I didn’t identify with the rich or the poor, though my father’s family in Damascus were among the top families. My mother was extremely poor when she grew up. She used to say there were only two jobs in Smyrna for women — to pick grapes for raisins or be a prostitute.
LT: You often write about prostitutes.
EA: If my mother hadn’t married my father, she may have been one. She was sixteen when he met her. Then the Greeks in Turkey were in concentration camps. Not like the German ones, more like the Japanese camps during WWII here.
LT: Were they comfortable letting you go to Paris?
EA: My father was dead by that time. It broke my mother’s heart. I was twenty-four when I went. I had a French government scholarship for three years.
LT: How did that happen?
EA: I worked from the age of sixteen. I was the only child. We needed money. I cut school for a year, and one day I was crying in the office, and my boss, a Frenchman, asked, “Why are you crying?” “Because everybody goes to school and I don’t.” He said, “Why not? I’ll help you.” But I said, “I work all day, there are no night classes. But I could take morning classes.” He let me come to the office at 10am instead of 8 — I made it up at night. I finished the whole program in two months instead of eight and received a baccalaureate, which allowed me to go into the third year of a French school that specialized in literature. I quit the first job and found one doing almost nothing, for a man who wanted to write a novel. He thought if I just sat there, he would write it. He didn’t, for two years, but I was paid every month. I read books in his library. [Laughing]
In the French school, Gabriel Bounoure taught us Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Verlaine. He wanted literature to be free from the Jesuits, and he taught poetry. Thanks to him, we got an enlightened education. He’s the one who encouraged me to apply for a scholarship to Paris. I told him my mother didn’t want me to. When I told her, she went crazy. I was her only child, and I’d be in a foreign place. But I went.
LT: You were very brave.
EA: Brave in many ways, but also brave with no sense of the future. It was day-to-day bravery.
LT: It raises the question of developing character, your character, and how you respond to others, and fashioning characters in fiction.
EA: Some people have hardships that kill them. Others are made so bitter they have no hope. But hardships can also, in some cases, become experiences one can grow from.
LT: Often in your writing, there are questions of liberty and madness. In Of Cities and Women, set in Barcelona, in the Ramblas, a woman walks down the street completely naked: “After she passed me I saw her from behind, and was wondering if she was really naked. She was. She continued down the avenue probably heading for the red light district… . Was this a scene of absolute liberty or of insanity?” I don’t know, sometimes, what I’m seeing.
EA: That’s interesting, to say you don’t know what’s happening.
LT: I’m wary of making judgments, generational ones — “In our day, this or that.” Nonetheless, what is being free or crazy? What’s possibility or breakdown?
EA: They’re both such flexible notions. We don’t know completely what we mean by freedom, especially when freedom is used as a nuisance to others. We also don’t really know what insanity is.
LT: We don’t know what the benefits or disadvantages of certain behaviors are or will be.
EA: Insanity, as a category, has mostly disappeared. But how do you run a society between these two notions, both boundaries, which in effect include disorders? To implement law, what do you do when you have power? How do you use it? Stop? How to integrate contradictory rights?
LT: In your poetics, you are very free. In Of Cities, you employ the epistolary form.
EA: Because it gives one freedom. I wrote it because my friend Fawwaz wanted me to write a paper on feminism.
LT: “Several questions come forward at the same time, pushing each other. Calling us or escaping us. Should we wish for the acceleration of this process, which is that women become more like men, or should we rather hope for the metaphysical distinctions…” You’re so succinct, discussing a complex issue that’s still very much with us. I’m not an essentialist, but how do we maintain differences and reduce inequality?
EA: I have no answer, but it is a genuine question.
LT: It’s also similar in regard to varieties of cultures and societies, religions — can we respect differences amidst, for lack of a better word, globalization?
EA: The trend is toward uniformity. Obviously women have been acculturated to use their femininity, men their masculinity. I don’t think that we want to keep everything we have called “the feminine.” We need societies to maintain what I’d call a metaphysical balance, the different qualities of masculine and feminine. Aggression is part of life, but we also need a counter aggression. We need men who are against war as much as women — though there are more and more women for war. We need diversity and balance in the sexes.
LT: It’s in your writing, though I don’t know if I’ve read the word as such: forgiveness.
EA: Goodness of the heart. That is the core of Christ and Christianity. Everything else is an invention of his followers. When Jesus said, “I am the Son of God,” he didn’t mean it the way it’s interpreted. In Semitic languages, in Arabic, to be a “son” is an everyday expression. For example, a man might say, “Young man,” take him by the hand, then say, “My son, do you know what time it is?” To be the son is to be accepted. It’s a friendly word. When Jesus said, “I am the Son, Father,” he meant “I am accepted, and what I say is agreeable to the Father, to God.” He spoke in Aramaic, older even than Arabic.
LT: In The Arab Apocalypse, an extraordinary epic poem, I noticed the word “sun” throughout. I’d never encountered “sun” presented in so many ways.
EA: As a child, I had a strong sense of the presence of the sun. In the summer, the sun is very vivid in Beirut. I was fascinated by the shadow my own body made, when going for an afternoon swim. In my twenties, I heard the French say that Arabs were the children of the sun, les enfants du soleil. It was said with disdain — Arabs were irresponsible, grown-up children. And I remember walking into the mountains of my village, never wearing a hat, being very aware it was hot, feeling surrounded by the sun like a thief by the police. As I said, we didn’t have many books, and not having brothers and sisters, I was more involved with noticing what was around me.
LT: In all of your work there’s a strong emphasis on nature and relationship to a sense of place. It’s as if to lose one’s place, to feel in exile or be in exile, focused you.
EA: You’re absolutely right. My relation to place is also a desire to know where I am. When I arrive somewhere, I want to know, where’s south? My partner, Simone, asks, “Why do you bother?” I like to be oriented. I grew up as an anguished child, partly because of not having brothers and sisters in a society where I was marginal. My father, an Arab from Damascus, living in Lebanon — I was born and raised in Lebanon, my mother was Greek. The French were ruling Lebanon, so we were also marginal in relation to a colonial power. And my parents were a mixed marriage — there were few. I think I compensated by trying to know always where I was.
LT:The Arab Apocalypse takes a unique approach to writing on the page — you use signs, lines, curves, symbols.
EA: The signs are there as an excess of emotion. The signs are the unsaid. More can be said, but you are stopped by your emotion.
LT: The word “stop” is in capital letters throughout. As in, “Stop This War.”
EA: I wrote The Arab Apocalypse when Tel al-Zaatar was under siege. Tel al-Zaatar is a neighborhood in Beirut, where twenty thousand people, not all Palestinian but mostly Palestinian, lived underground. The Phalangists and their allies attacked in ’76. Maybe the fighters in the camp had some advance notice and left. But the women, children, and old people who remained were slaughtered. It was worse than Sabra and Shatila.
LT: Worse than Sabra and Shatila?
EA: It was as bad and worse. There was only one well, so women would go there for water. Maybe twenty, to make sure one got back. They were surrounded by snipers. The Arab Apocalypse is about Tel al-Zaatar — the hill of thyme — but its subject is beyond this siege, which was the beginning of the undoing of the Arabs. This war was the sign of disaster coming, that by mismanagement and mistakes, the Arabs would undo themselves.
LT: The form and content of The Arab Apocalypse are imaginatively fused: “A sun and a belly full of vegetables, a system of fat tuberoses. A sun which is SOFT. The eucalyptus. The Arabs are under the ground. The Americans are on the moon. The sun has eaten its children. I myself was a morning blessed with bliss.” What’s produced is a sense of survival, even in the midst of atrocious conditions and behavior.
EA: I started this book when I lived in Beirut. It’s fifty-nine poems, the same number as the days of the siege. I could hear the bombs from my balcony. For fifty-nine days, they didn’t let any food in, water, nothing. I saw a manifestation of pure evil. In metaphysics there is no word for that. I saw evil.
LT:In Paris When It’s Naked, you quote Delacroix, who said he had to satisfy “something black” in him. It relates to your saying that violence or evil has no one country.
EA: We have institutions, we try to control it. Or we decide to unleash it. But there is evil in every person to different degrees. Evil is part of being.
LT: I think of it as cruelty to other people, to life.
EA: And oneself. Power creates a temptation to be abusive. Nations that feel immune, or superior, sure to win, are not wise. Like the Bush administration, a folly of arrogance. In nature, there is danger, too. Because the sun is dangerous. It can kill you, burn you. But the sun is also life.
LT:The Arab Apocalypse is a superb example of a poem that pays attention to poetics and place, war, politics — literally, what happens in the city.
EA: There is the presence of war in almost everything I write. Beirut’s importance is because of war, it’s a child of WWI. In 1920 we had refugees from Armenia. WWII brought foreign armies, not bloodshed. Beirut profited, because when armies are around, there’s money. In ’58 a little civil war started. In ’67 another batch of refugees. In ’71 the Israelis bombed the airport. In ’75, the start of fifteen years of civil war. In 1982, the Israelis entered Beirut. There were other Israeli incursions, constant bombing of the south. Beirut was done and almost undone by war.
LT:The Arab Apocalypse is like a jeremiad.
EA: Yes. It’s pessimistic. I sometimes think I’m an optimist because I always advise myself to go on, overcome. But my vision of the world is pretty dark. I try not to forget the good of
this world — not only good people, but the sunshine, the trees. There is also happiness in this world.
LT:In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country is written in paragraphs: “A person. People here to portray there is a person who loves me to death. Not to my death or hers, but to the death of the person I loved… . I wonder who invented the ugly word punishment. It was probably God, who established the word and the deed.” From the word “person,” the paragraph leads to an unexpected end, to the possibility of people hurting each other.
EA: Not the possibility. My heart had been broken. It’s full of allusions to my biography.
LT: In the paragraph “Place,” you wrote, “I moved from city to city, traveled from person to person and then I tried to define myself through writing. But that doesn’t work. No, not at all. It adds fiction to the fiction I became… . I’m in a disorienting wilderness.” I want to focus on fiction itself. I think you’re trying to make a place from writing.
EA: There is a sense of exile in everyone. We are exiled from each other, to a point. It’s what relationships are about — to close that gap as much as possible. Writing is a dialogue with that deep feeling. Some feel they came from somewhere. They have a strong illusion of belonging. Other people, or groups, have a special restlessness and understanding, a nomadic spirit. We’re so used to it, we don’t know how to be without it. Everything has its advantages. I don’t envy a French peasant in a village — I’m happy that she’s happy, but I can’t figure out that happiness.
LT: You’ve said history is incorporated in individuals.
EA: We are the result of history, more than we know — we think we are free from it. Nietzsche said, If you believe in freedom, you are stupid, but if you don’t feel freedom, you’re doomed. You function in relation to the entire moral code that is based on responsibility and, therefore, freedom of choice.
LT: In Sitt Marie Rose, your protagonist maintains her freedom by not trading places with her Palestinian lover. She won’t let him be killed instead of her.
EA: She chose to die, she didn’t want to die. The Phalangists offered to trade her—that would have been treason to her.
LT: Sitt Marie Rose was an extraordinary woman. You represent women and their place in the world — not just in the Arab world — and also in terms of their feminism.
EA: I am a feminist, first because I was a rebellious child. I was not a conscious rebel, but an instinctive one. I couldn’t get along with my mother. I wanted to do what I wanted to do, like taking a taxi in Beirut when I was sixteen — girls didn’t take taxis. I took a particular pleasure in it. I wouldn’t walk in the streets, I’d always run. I didn’t want to get married — I thought marriage was a prison. I became more politically involved when I attended Berkeley. Society is conservative, you always have to behave. I was a natural rebel.
LT: I was intrigued by a statement of yours, that you fear Western civilization.
EA: Conquering is always at the expense of somebody else. Western civilization behaves as if it offers redemption — the Israelis were the last example of that. They came as Westerners, Europeans, but Western civilization, like all civilizations, had invaded others. But most of the other civilizations tried to integrate the indigenous people — the Romans had emperors who were Arabs, Alexander wanted to join East and West. The Chinese had many ethnic groups. The West is the most racist of civilizations. It eradicates the conquered people. For example, Belgium was responsible for twelve million Congolese deaths. When the West couldn’t eradicate outside its boundaries, it eradicated within, as Germany did. Western civilization speaks about itself as a
model, but it has a very dark side.
LT: You became a pacifist. What other great changes have you undergone?
EA: I had no interest in politics until living in Paris in 1950. Israel was just being created, it didn’t exist in my head. In 1956, at Berkeley, I joined the Arab Students Association and met a young Palestinian woman, the first I knew. My position then was that Palestine had to be liberated, in any way — we had to win that war. This was the case until the Oslo Accords, ten years ago, when I decided I was not against peace. Oslo was a turning point — it made me a pacifist. I still believe the Palestinians have a cause, but I believe it is natural that we live together and build anew.
Writing also changes me. I don’t lie when I write. Something happens, and I must discover it. Writing forces one to go to the bitter end of what one thinks.
Click here to read Etel Adnan’s musings on the life of small magazines.