Suspended Sentences | The Nation


Suspended Sentences

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About the Author

Scott Saul
Scott Saul, an associate professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of Freedom Is,...

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Behind Richard Pryor’s jokes and barbs was a man yearning to be free.

At Berkeley in 1964, Mario Savio embodied the need to speak and act in the face of doubt.

In 2005 the editors of the ecumenical poetry annual Fulcrum sent out a questionnaire on "poetry and truth" that ventured to ask the big questions, no matter how self-serious or old-fashioned they seemed: "What is poetry's essential nature (if any)?" for instance, and "How does poetry relate to the human condition?" For the nineteen poets and critics who responded, including Billy Collins, James Wood, Lyn Hejinian and Charles Bernstein, the exercise was something of a Rorschach test of their comfort with the questionnaire's elevated tone. Some matched its earnestness note for note ("Poetry, among all arts, probably comes closest to the search for truth since it expresses itself in language, which is the truth medium"--Russian poet Alexei Tsvetkov); some answered it with Steinian riddles ("The greatest poets....accomplish nothing, which is everything"--Hejinian); and some deflated it with absurdist humor ("Poetry is to truth like rubber to the rubber tree: it bounces"--Bernstein).

And then there was Eliot Weinberger, cultural critic and award-winning translator of Octavio Paz and Jorge Luis Borges, who pushed back against Fulcrum's questions about poetry and truth with a story about poetry and the failures of criticism. (It is included in Weinberger's new collection of prose pieces, Oranges and Peanuts for Sale.) In sixteenth-century India, Weinberger's story goes, a poor but devout farmer enlists the god Shiva to write a poem for him so that he might win a prize of a thousand gold coins promised by the king of Madurai. Shiva does write a love poem, but the royal assembly rejects it for what seems to be a trivial reason: the poem describes a woman's hair as naturally fragrant and, according to the critic Natkira, the court's official aesthetic treatise does not allow for such a thing. When Shiva appears at the royal court to argue for his poem--its features, embellishment and sentiment--Natkira is unbending, pointing again to the treatise and its rule on the description of hair. At this point, Weinberger writes,

the god became enraged and revealed his terrifying third eye of flame. The critic said, "I don't care if you have eyes all over your head. Your poem is no good." So Shiva cursed him and turned him into a leper.

Weinberger was clearly having some fun with Fulcrum's questionnaire: instead of answers, he offered a booby-trapped parable, advising all critics to be wary of the dogmas they subscribe to, lest they find themselves on the wrong end of another summary judgment. But though there is a dash of humor to the parable (the unflappability of Natkira when confronted by Shiva's exposed third eye; the testiness of Shiva and the quick flick of his punishment), it's undeniably a revenge fantasy too. Critics often presume to wield control over the fate of artists, but here it's the artist, unbound by aesthetic and legal convention, who relishes the power to literally flame his critics. Which is fitting for Weinberger: he's the sort of critic who often takes up arms against other critics, speaking for an aesthetic vision that is like that "terrifying third eye"--normally hidden from sight but incandescent and disturbing when revealed. Creativity and castigation, invention and moral judgment, are the alpha and omega of Weinberger's work.

For some thirty-odd years now, Weinberger has been carving out his iconoclastic niche in our cultural landscape--or rather several iconoclastic niches. He has long been a sophisticated translator and ambassador of an international avant-garde, bringing innovative Latin American, Chinese and American poetries to a larger audience; and almost as long, he has been a witty but withering observer of the limits of American intellectual life (one persistent criticism being the lack of interest in innovative world literature). In the past decade, though--the years largely of the Bush regime--Weinberger has invested increasing energy into two other, seemingly disconnected projects. In one vein of work, he writes political commentary largely for export, dissecting and scourging American militarism ("The United States is a Banana Republic with a lot of money") in publications from As-Safir (Lebanon) to Zvˇedavec (the Czech Republic). In another vein, he has intensified his experimentation with the form of the essay, bringing it closer to poetry and magical realism. Yet all of Weinberger's writings are held together by his signature style: cutting in its precision and ironic distance, erudite but uncluttered, clean.

Weinberger is best known for "What I Heard About Iraq," an essay that managed to bring together his commentator and experimentalist halves, applying principles of Modernist collage--more specifically the archival collage method of New York poet Charles Reznikoff--to the "truth decay" of the Bush years. Published in the London Review of Books on February 3, 2005, the essay went viral, eventually being linked to or reproduced on more than 100,000 websites; later that year it was adapted into a work of protest theater performed in locales as far-flung as Berlin, Calcutta, Durban and Los Angeles. It may be the most circulated piece of antiwar writing to emerge from the Iraq War.

Weinberger's method was to turn the 24/7 spin cycle on the war into a piece of found poetry, one that conjures up the war's absurdity rather than declaring it. Sound bites from global media are isolated, stripped down, then pieced back together--suspended sentence to suspended sentence--so that readers are served up the absurdity of the war in a bitterly concentrated dose. Here's a passage from the second installment of the essay, published January 5, 2006, in the LRB:

I heard that, in Fallujah and elsewhere, the US had employed white phosphorus munitions, an incendiary device, known among soldiers as "Willie Pete" or "shake and bake", which is banned as a weapon by the Convention on Conventional Weapons. Similar to napalm, it leaves the victim horribly burned, often right through to the bone. I heard a State Department spokesman say: "US forces have used them very sparingly in Fallujah, for illumination purposes. They were fired into the air to illuminate enemy positions at night, not at enemy fighters." Then I heard him say that "US forces used white phosphorus rounds to flush out enemy fighters so that they could then be killed with high explosive rounds." Then I heard a Pentagon spokesman say that the previous statements were based on "poor information", and that "it was used as an incendiary weapon against enemy combatants." Then I heard the Pentagon say that white phosphorus was not an illegal weapon, because the US had never signed that provision of the Convention on Conventional Weapons.

Jon Stewart and the creative team at The Daily Show have broadcast this sort of media critique--illustrating how the corruption of language follows the corruption of power--to millions on a nightly basis. But "What I Heard About Iraq" is more disquieting than The Daily Show, partly because it doesn't offer the safety valve of shared laughter, and partly because it mirrors an almost shameful passivity. It tracks the twisting of the truth but is reticent on what to do about it; the narrative voice is a vacuum chamber that, registering all, is also unsettlingly inert. In fact, this may be the secret to the piece's success: unlike much agitprop, which calls upon its viewers or readers to do something, "What I Heard About Iraq" crystallized the feeling, shared by millions around the world, that the war was built on lies but that the truth was poor consolation to those, in Iraq, suffering in its grasp. The pathos of the war protester, alone and agape in front of the latest outrage on his or her computer screen, had found its literary form.

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