Caption: The Virgin Annunciate, Antonello da Messina, c. 1476. The Virgin is, here, come to the knowledge of her conception of Christ not by an angel but from the book before her, from the Word. The act of materially impossible conception, the birth of Christ, comes to be, comes to existence, only when it is written of, passing from the Virgin’s verbal annunciation to the written chronicle of the birth, passing from Word to Word — with the material being of the birth of Christ between these, with the fleshly and actual real, with the time of the phenomenon, being irrelevant, if not nonexistent. The Virgin hears the announcing angel, reads the text before her, and at once knows of the birth, at once births and foresees and remembers. It is written, and it is known and was and is at once. Thus the world is made in or by the Word; thus we are made and come to know ourselves as our gaze falls upon the Word; thus the Word is the initiating gaze of God, as the face or mask of God, which we reciprocate; thus we, as the Virgin, birth the Word and from our rotting flesh eternity comes forth, thus in dust and at the end eternity begins, the Word stands.
What, in its creation and being, emergence and existence, movement and stasis, action and witness; what, in its creation of itself and of its subject; what, in its spontaneity and eternity; what, in its appearance, sudden or eternally postponed; what, in its beginning and end and timeless being; what, in the reality, in the world it creates; what, in its creation and its gaze upon itself, upon its creation and upon the world; what, in all these, in itself, is the Word?
Treating the Word simultaneously to be the singular or particular element — though in itself a whole of wholes (syllables, morphemes, etc.) of parts or indivisible wholes (individual letters) — of language, of language as art (poetry) and to be the whole of language and of the poem, the word becomes a whole in itself (the particular word) and a whole existing or emerging as the apparent accumulation of wholes (the Word of particular words) — or the image, the indivisible reflection, of such an accumulation. We then approach the question of the Word as symbol, as mask behind which there is nothing; the question of the birth of the Word, whence it comes and whither; the question of the Word’s subject, that which the Word represents, mimics, becomes — the mask which the Word (itself a mask) wears; the question of the Word’s meaning, the subject which the Word itself creates, either initially or retrospectively; and the question of the Word as it is in the subjective, passive and absent gaze — the Word as it emerges and moves forth and stands motionless in its being, at last part of a greater indivisible image (a poetic image whole), reflected from the sum (the above accumulation) of words.
The last question — of the Word as it is in our subjectivity, our absent gaze, as it is thus a perception or symbol of its objective self, a mask before a mask before nothingness or absence — presents to us the conclusion, or rather a notation which is stepping stone along a greater path, that the Word creates itself, demarcates itself its terms and limits and foundation for existence. This self-birth nevertheless is not preceded by this self-demarcation of the footing for this birth, but the latter process occurs simultaneously with the former — both thrusting the Word into absolute existence (absolute existence as object-existence that does not follow any movement of becoming, towards existence) — the Word, in its birth and foundation to hold its birth, being neither emergent nor moving but already existing. The Word does not emerge from out or within the present time, from out or within our gaze, as a phenomenon, but rather enters our gaze from without, stands across from us, in absolute and timeless being — and we, mute, wordless, take the Word — that come to us from outside our gaze and our subjectivity — for our own.
The Word is neither emergent from nor existent within our gaze which is directed towards the present, our subjectivity, but comes to us and emerges from us as a timeless, abyssal, insuperable whole of itself. This is to say — as the ancients called poets prophets (poeta vates) — that the Word, if a timeless transcendent and descending whole, is the face God, a mask behind which is the presence of absence, a symbol which thrusts forth and stands unmoving in absolute existence, without a present or past or future. And as the Word descends and falls to come within our gaze, we scarcely raise our heads and already we see it in its wholeness and know it and birth it from our lips and pens as the fruit of our thought — a fallen, mortal, material fruit that was whole and eternal before its earthly conception. The resultant sum of words — brought into ink from the thrusting forth of this wholeness, this poetic force in thought — similarly births itself and builds the foundation to hold its birth simultaneously. And, at last, this divisible sum of words creates through reflection an indivisible image (the poetic image whole) which creates, inhabits and transcends each word and part; this image, then, is the Word, the mask before the mask, the face of God in its absolute, unconquerable, unmoving presence and existence without birth or death. The space across which this poetic image whole is reflected is an empty space, the material world, the world of thought, the world and being behind the subjective gaze.
The Word — as we see it and take it and cast it with our rotting hands onto the rotting ground — is eternity surrogated by mortality, gold found amidst but not formed from dust. It is our tragedy, of our blindness, that our gaze sees our end and nothing beyond it. As it is a presence, the Word is the face of God, a mask which looks at us and we at it, which speaks to us and we write — and we, poets, fall into the earth, kissed and thrown forth by the divinity. We weep and trace an eternity in the dust, we weep and from our rot sing our tragedy, we weep and birth the divinity and end after the birth — we, mute surrogates, passive hordes — seeing, knowing, weeping and without words.
Nickolas is a columnist for the Paper Crane.
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A demonstrator in Moscow being detained by police. The poster reads “No to war” and “Ukraine is not our enemy.” Associated Press.
The question of national identity, and the questions of national sovereignty and territorial integrity which arise from the question of national identity, all of which are central to the Russo-Ukrainian War, must be defined categorically, addressed and resolved universally, if this war, and the historical conflict of which it is born, is to end at last — if at last life, the human right to live, is placed above everything else, above all ideas and philosophies and politics, if at last the guiltless masses cease to bleed for the ideas of the fanatical few.
Language — as it is the expression of a people, their distinct political and cultural voice that emerges out of historical conflict, settlement and political struggle — prescribes the individual to a people sharing the language and, consequently, to the history, artistic and literary expression and political struggle of that people. These facets of society — historical and political consciousness, artistic and intellectual expression — as much as they exist within language and are born from language, create for the people of that language a collective understanding of self, of shared history and present-day politics — a collective world-gaze which, as distinct from those of other societies, drives a distinct expression through art and politics. This drive for expression (and thus for existence), as it is directed by collective history, creates a collective people’s culture and concept of nationhood or national identity.
Being born of a people collected together through shared historical and political experience, with a shared world-gaze, national identity has its original root in language. After language, a people, then a collective consciousness, then a world-gaze, then a culture and politics, then a society and national identity come to be. A nation, then, comes into being after all the aforementioned as a political, practical, differentiation of that people and history and culture, of that society and language, from all others. A political state emerges out of that people, a society forms, geographical borders are defined — and so a nation, as a practical institution for the preservation and protection of a people and history and culture and the language that binds and births all these, comes to be.
Thus, a people’s national identity, and the language in which it exists, precede and transcend the nation which is a political and purely practical institution that holds within it a people and their identity and language but can in no sense be equated to these or conceived to inform these.
Russia — as Nazi Germany in the last century and all fascistic and fanatical societies that place the realization of a political or historical-religious mystical vision before life and the individual’s right to live — has premised its aggression in Ukraine and violation of the practical structure of nation (and national borders) on the suggested Russian national identity of inhabitants of eastern Ukraine, a claim deriving from the Russian language usage of those inhabitants. Russia would annex Ukrainian national territory and establish a Russian nation, in the practical structure of a nation, after violating Ukraine’s nation structure; denying a people’s and the individual’s foremost right to live which precedes any notion of national identity, history or language; and thus rejecting the necessity of a nation as a practical structure functioning, in the first place, to preserve a people, to protect human life.
Russia’s hypocrisy in first violating the (Ukrainian) nation structure, dismissing the foremost value of human life, only to erect a Russian nation structure over mass graves and razed cities — neither to preserve a people nor to protect human life, but first and foremost to establish a new and false national identity — must be denounced, socially and politically, and prosecuted, legally, in the strongest terms and with greatest urgency. For, as any fascistic war, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, reverses the purpose of the political and practical nation structure from firstly preserving a people and thus human life to firstly preserving a national identity, culture, history and language. This reversed nation structure is false — for neither can national identity exist without human life nor should it, as any political ideology or philosophy, be valued before human life or be built on its oppression and sacrifice.
We, living not a hundred years since the Holocaust, since the second World War, since the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides — we, inheritors of the last century’s evil, our forefathers’ evil, began our century’s first war in Europe and have turned deaf to the historical cry of all those millions oppressed and persecuted and slaughtered. And we commit the same sin, carry into our century the same evil: to value ideas and ideology before life, history and politics before life, national identity before life, land before life; to oppress, conquer and triumph; to deny, again and again, that others have the right to live, the right to life, that they are human.
The war must end, but only with the victory of the nation over national identity, life over ideology, Ukraine over Russia. And as language, as a people and their collective identity and distinct world-gaze, as national identity, transcend the practical nation structure, they must not remain passive to their nation’s bleeding, to its strife for survival — for the nation protects a people, preserves language and history and identity. And without the nation, without just politics and incorruptible law, without principle and courage, we, the people of the world, against evil, in our struggle to life, for all our visions and histories and philosophies, are nothing.
Nickolas is a columnist for the Paper Crane.
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Mr Smith Goes to Washington centers on the efforts of an individual senator against a legislature nearly totally corrupted by a political machine (controlling both public opinion and the government’s private dealings), greed for political and economic gain, and fear of retribution and political ruin for anything less than total allegiance to the political machine’s agenda. Corruption being thus entrenched and the function of government being thus perverted to serve only its members’ personal gain, Mr Smith (in believing politics to be honest, the Senate virtuous and the endurance of the founding principles of American democracy in modern politics) represents the outsider’s, the idealized view of government. The absurdity of Mr Smith’s ignorance is a counterpoint to the absurdity of the total Senate’s corruption, and, while both are improbable, Mr Smith’s characterization is necessary within the satire that is Mr Smith Goes to Washington. Although Mr Smith’s character, his naiveté and boyish reverence for the American ideal are sentimental and improbable, analogs to his qualities of outsider and disrupter of the status quo (and to his popularity for these qualities) may be drawn from the popularity of the outsider and disrupter in modern American politics; this popularity, unlike that of Mr Smith, stems from public cynicism or apathy, not, as in the film, from idealism.
The film portrays corruption as the norm in state and federal government and personal gain as the aim of government. In this, the film exaggerates the profusion of government corruption, and to this exaggeration the opposite must likewise be an exaggeration: Mr Smith, in contrast to those in power who view power and government as a means for profit, believes that American democracy is unconditionally just, its principles immovable, its founders infallible. Mr Smith, therefore, does not recognize the necessary imperfection, conflict and confused but democratic progress that is government. In this way, Mr Smith’s characterization is improbable for a senator, although necessary to the plot.
Arriving in Washington with little more than knowledge of American history and abstract sentiments on the virtue of American government, without any knowledge of the practicality of government nor the sensationalism of the media nor the extensive influence of Taylor nor the cynicism of senators, Mr Smith’s effort to pass legislation creating a national boy’s camp becomes a struggle to defend himself against slander, against Paine’s accusation of fraudulence, to prove himself honest and his slanderers fraudulent. Reciting the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, Mr Smith struggles to remake the Senate into the honest, virtuous body he believed it was; to accomplish this he must overcome Taylor’s influence and the senators’ greed and fear — thus disrupting the corrupt status quo. In this, Smith’s characterization as disruptor is necessary to the plot, believable and applicable to modern politics.
Modern American politics is in part defined by the public’s belief, however unfounded, in the corruption of government. This belief in institutional and, increasingly from the Republican party, electoral corruption attracts cynical or apathetic voters to populist, seemingly outsider candidates (as Donald Trump) who are characterized as Mr Smiths: honest candidates seeking power only to remake government, removed from the practicality and intrigue and thus the alleged corruption of the status quo. Beliefs in the entrenched corruption of government are unjustified and threaten to remake a just democracy into a tyrannous rule of the majority; populist candidates, like Donald Trump, who claim to fight corruption sooner are themselves corrupt, self-serving and undemocratic. Thus, the idealized, virtuous, disruptive image of the political outsider that is Mr Smith is applicable to modern politics sooner as a facade to self-interest, disruption of a democratic status quo, and the chaos of authoritarianism than a necessary reality. Mr Smith’s knowledge of American history, reverence for democracy and American government must be met by the modern politician with a critical and constructive perspective and comprehensive knowledge of the practicality of government.
The importance of Mr Smith Goes to Washington is its exaggerated, satirical quality which portrays the potential for the corruption of any government, even of American democracy, if the politician fails to balance idealism and skepticism, traditionalism and innovation; if greed is followed before duty; if power becomes its own end. The film at once cautions against cynicism and encourages skepticism and nuanced understanding of politics. In a time of increased polarization, misinformation, media bias and intolerance of disagreeing views, the film portrays the potential for any government to corrupt, any democracy to cease to believe in itself and in the power of one individual against injustice. This portrayal of what may be if we surrender our individuality, our healthy skepticism to the apathy and discontent by which authoritarianism comes to power, is ever more relevant.
The improbable character of Mr Smith is, then, a symbol of the might of the individual, the urgency for principled government and faith in democracy, the importance of moderation, the necessity for tradition and improvement — for no institution or individual is without flaw.
Nickolas is a columnist for the Paper Crane.
Tietê bus terminal, São Paulo, Brazil, 1996, Sebastião Salgado
To me this photograph embodies the relation of language and art to reality. The photograph captures the physical and intellectual aspects of freedom — as they contradict and contend with each other. The people — grasping the gate, as though beginning to climb it — look in the same direction as the woman in the foreground. Physical separation, the absence of physical freedom, is meaningless in the photograph’s moment: the people and the woman are all there where they look. And yet the people and the woman as we see them exist only in the photograph; they are not real; they look somewhere off, somewhere and nowhere. We presume that the people are captive and the woman is free; but they all have time neither for thought nor language; they can only exist; they are made captive in their existence by the photograph, the work of art. This is the contradiction of art. This is art’s struggle for truth. In looking at the photograph we look at the minds, not the bodies, of the people and the woman. The people and the woman together create a reality; that reality is not physical. That reality, the photograph, is an abstraction, an empty metaphor without meaning, a metaphor that precedes meaning. This abstraction is the function of poetry (poetry in the linguistic or visual or musical art); this poetic metaphor treats human beings as minds (intelligences, as Ezra Pound had it), and through abstraction, through metaphor poetry makes its subject ubiquitous. The people behind the gate and the woman in front of it, as a poem’s words and lines, morph into a singular impression that precedes meaning, a singular metaphor and abstraction that precede meaning (not unlike Keats’s negative capability). Abstraction and metaphor, then, are the functions of poetry. The captives and the woman are all captive in themselves; they, to us, are not their real selves but symbols, abstractions of themselves; they are a language, as language is in poetry, of art. To us, they are symbols of an eternity, minds, the only divinities — only for a moment, only in the photograph, only as art, they are free.
Now we feel most acutely — as all peoples in all times likely have — the danger of language. It is the danger of deceit, ignorance and blind belief. Language used only to communicate, concerned only with its effect and not its construction, is at once essential for everyday interaction and a political weapon. Language — an idea and a practice inseparable from our human identity, individual and shared, and fundamental to our need for expression — is, however, entirely unethical: it is a tool which anyone, irrespective of ideology or justice of intent, can use to great effect. Language, then, is a result, a product of thought and of self — released into the world to contend with others’ thoughts and selves, others’ language, for acceptance and effect.
Language, such as political rhetoric, has the immense and dangerous power to create worlds — realities that agree with one or another political ideology; that draw a border around one or another community; that drown out through zeal and fear and rage opposition and argument; that have no room for one or another idea or people or, most dangerously, for actual reality. Here lies the danger — in language that, by creating realities, rejects actual reality. Antisemitism, war justified with simplified and selected history, the denial of climate change, nationalism, censorship, repression — all these, real-world manifestations of private ideology (private belief, prejudice etc.), inhabit our world through language.
And in order to exist, to continuously reinvent and reproduce, the language of ideology — of prejudice and persecution, nationalism and political zealotry — must be deafening: it must not give voice to disagreement or fact; it must not be rigorous or profound; it must be accessible and exciting. Prejudice, and the language by which it exists, cannot be informed by reality — for to build ideology on the basis of fact, to admit error, to value common good over ambition, is inconvenient, counter to ambition, practically impossible for the tyrant or conquerer or bigot. For their identity to survive, for them to survive, for them to hold onto power, they must not lose their hunger for profit, they must not waver even in the face of their deceit, they must not loosen their grasp on the reins holding a nation by its throat — pulling it back and tugging it along. The tyrant’s language must not answer reality but create it.
Misinformation — finding faster wings, becoming more subtle and total with every year of technological innovation and expansion — is the essential struggle of our generation. And yet, turning to history, braving to look at it fully, objectively, braving to remember genocide, conquest, oppression and the ideologies from which these were born and the language with which these existed — considering these, the struggles of the present, much like deceit itself, seem nothing more than reinventions of the past, unknown only at the face and ignored in passing.
Literature, particularly poetry, is an answer to the weaponization of language. Poetry is concerned not only with the effect of language but with its construction, recording reality and not creating it, contradicting itself because the world contradicts itself, stumbling toward truth — the truth of human existence and emotion and identity and ideology. Truth, unlike deceit, has no need to speak, only to exist. It is silent, there for all who look. Poetry is the struggle for truth, the struggle that is truth. It is a contention between feeling and fact, speech and silence, presence and absence, image and sound, sight and blindness, message and form. It is essentially contradictory.
Poetry, literature, art are someone’s — the artist’s and the world’s — quiet stumbling steps toward truth — or, if not that, then whatever it is we are, whatever it is the world is: humanity, emotion, ideology, identity, sickness, folly, noise, silence, presence, absence, something, nothing — all vain hope to find something in nothing, all optimism, all a lie.
Nickolas is a columnist for the Paper Crane.
Language, as the existence of poetry signifies, inherently and inexorably fails. Produced by an individual who is by definition subjective, isolated, individual, for the communication of a message (thought, emotion, etc.), to be better understood by another, language must fail: it is too linear, too ordered, too exact, too categorical to convey that which created it, the thought and feeling that surround it, the world-gaze and intention behind it, the necessary disorder and inconstancy and deceit and feeling of the mind that authored it. Language — or ordered, grammatical language (which too is forged out of disorder) — if failing to convey to another one’s intended message and the thoughts around and beyond it, must therefore fail to convey oneself, one’s internal feeling and being, to another.
We, then, cannot be understood and are thus alone — our existence being internal, isolated, confined in itself — our thought and feeling unspeakable. Language, predestined to fail, is then a blind struggle not to fail, to convey our thought and being. In speaking, writing, expressing, we struggle to convey ourselves, our world-gaze, our feeling, to another — and speak merely a fragment of that which we intend, translate our entire being and thought and feeling into the linearity of sentences for the world’s understanding, become a shadow, a shell of ourselves to another, achieve a fragmented, failed understanding of what we are — an entire, self-contradictory, immeasurable and insurmountable being reduced to absolute, short, shallow words.
Language, therefore, is an unwavering line, a tyranny which allows neither contradiction nor profundity nor human, subjective truth. We must search everywhere else, above and beneath and around words to attempt to understand (however vainly) another’s thought and feeling and being. Language, therefore, is false — a lie.
And yet we are not left in total ignorance, total night — there are the stars and the moon which shine for us, their light for our perception, illuminating the world as we perceive it, light that serves us and is in a sense created by us — existing only as we perceive.
I do not mean to stray. That light — born of the falsity and vanity of language, born of the struggle of language to overcome its impotence and itself — is poetry.
Poetry not as substance, syntax, form or intention but as action, expression, aggression towards the thing (as Pound conceived; the object, poetry’s objective), the feverish clamor and dissonance of words that ends in impact (as Pound called it), impression of raw human feeling, thought, being. This collision — of author and reader, existence and empathy, thought and understanding, humanity and humanity — this impression of feeling, of being onto the reader produces an understanding, finds message and meaning completely senselessly, instinctually, unforcedly, unwittingly — meaning needn’t be labored after, phrases needn’t be explained expressions needn’t be made literal, the writing needn’t and mustn’t be reduced to a construction of technique and wit, a formula, a commodity.
Poetry (in whatever form), like objective truth, like any art, merely, silently exists — creating itself, existing by and for itself, itself an end. And poetic message is merely seen, heard — instantly internalized by the reader, for it is of the internal human world and cannot survive outside of it. Poetic message is felt by the reader as if their own feeling, thought as if their own thought, lived as if their own being — remembered, not learned.
Language is then poetry’s carrier. Poetry is not language; it surrounds, transcends language. Poetry, therefore, is not the poem. Poetry is the means and end by which the individual reaches the thing (the object, their own thought, their being) and impresses it onto another (the reader).
We thus find that poetry overcomes the failure of language, overcomes language; that poetry, if not language, is feeling, thought, human existence. Language does no more than surround, approach the thing; poetry lunges at it, takes it for its own.
Poetry, then, is aggression; it is conquest of and triumph over language and over the thing and over ourselves. Poetry transcends and overcomes — unspeakable, unreasonable, blind, deaf and nothing if not human.
Nickolas is a columnist for the Paper Crane.
Caption: William Blake’s watercolor for the sixth book of Paradise Lost, 1808.
Milton’s Paradise Lost is at once conventional and subversive of convention: The epic draws from the tradition of heroic poetry, the brave and necessarily unethical hero, only to redefine poetic subject matter, perspective and language.
Singing of heavenly, not earthly, war, Milton dispenses with the solely virtuous and villainous, the clearly good and bad, the simplistic and impersonal, and favors the individuality, complexity and moral ambiguity of character that tragedy brings.
Paradise Lost is sooner a lament of the fallen Satan, the fallen Eve and Adam, a rebuke of the tyranny of God’s monarchy and the inequity of accidental divine grace and blind Protestant predestination. Paradise Lost is a remembrance of the atrocity that divinity perpetuates, and people in its name: God and his Promised Land, a Land of Canaan, that was to be conquered, and seven nations to be killed by one; the anti-Semitism of the gospels; the barbarity of all holy wars.
Milton, an anti-monarchist, neither celebrates triumphant heaven nor condemns revolting angel and man. Neither glorifying and absolving nor damning, he laments.
Satan and man revolt and fall — but too calmly, too melodically, too symmetrically, too beautifully, with too great conviction and resilience. Linguistically and stylistically Milton threads a tragic, nihilistic, cold and remote symmetry through his republican epic. The reader can empathize neither with God’s tyranny (from Milton’s autarchic presentation of God) nor Satan’s blasphemy (for adherence to the biblical narrative).
And thus — disabused, without comfort, in a limbo between God and Satan, Heaven and Hell, Earth hangs, and the reader is confronted with the futility of heroism and the injustice of the Bible, literary tradition and our world. The reader blasphemes and revolts and falls with Satan and Adam and Eve.
Paradise Lost, then, is a history, a remembrance, too late and of no use, of our human sin. Milton’s is a composer’s art — symmetrical, abstract, at once symbolic and individual, contradictory and most clear.
Nickolas is a columnist for the Paper Crane.
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