Front Page    Contents   About    Privacy     Legals     And Those Sheep               email twitter

Writers on Sufferance   Nov23 2005

Filed under Down Under |
Recently we have been extending the reach of democracy by killing people in the hope that the survivors might get to vote"

Killing people, especially killing people at a distance, is something we now do very well," barbed Inga Clendinnen, startling her "Republic of Letters" audience with sudden ferocity.

An ever-pensiveness sent me hop-scotching along to the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards in Melbourne, Australia. Yet another chance to sycophantically serenade influential artistes and forlornly ingratiate with them on behalf of this insipid instrument.

But I digress.

To the great relief of our suffocating intellects Ms Clendinnen denounced expectations by renouncing her intention to deliver "a winsome little speech suitable to the occasion.." Gratefully relieved we were, as kangaroos might be should spotlights and gunfire enhance a night’s grazing.

Inga’s our kinda gal, might she (perhaps not) forgive me saying!

We are .. encouraged not to think beyond a certain point. We know that when armed men erupt into unarmed villages, there is likely to be rape, pillage, killings. But if it’s done by the other side, we classify these acts as unattractive tribal survivals, or if it’s done by our own men, murmur about lack of leadership or lack of education."

And meanwhile the landmines keep exploding and the bombs – smart or stupid – keep falling."

I think it is this induced moral myopia that allows our exhilarated waging of technologized war, the culpable vagueness of our aims, above all our vagueness regarding the consequences of what we are doing. We used to believe that torturing people – the willful infliction of pain on a powerless other – was wrong, even when they might know something we might like to know. Now ‘rendering suspects amenable to interrogation’ has slithered into the standard repertoire of tactics in the war against terror."

Ms Clendinnen heedfully rubbed our noses in the great sin of these selfish times, the bribing of ‘western civilization,’ its citizenry now full-bellied, trinket-laden whore and minion to the power-broking ideologues and their callous two-legged Rottweilers. Not merely inured are we to the woes of barbarized foreigners, but too comfortable to care. This was not, however, her exact message but (you would guess) another of my digressions.

Addressing the audience in somewhat different tone:

.. evidence is rapidly accumulating that taking pleasure in other people’s pain is not against human nature. So is there a difference between them and us? We used to think there was, and that the difference was called ‘progress’ or even ‘civilization’.

In the wake of September 11th it is increasingly difficult to believe that, given the dreadful celerity of that resort to torture and then the solemn deformation of law to protect what had already become established practice."

Conscience-pricking now relinquished to photojournalists, Ms Clendinnen laments, by writers’ concordance to sloganeering"a picture’s worth a thousand words" spin from marketing 101, and the game appears over:

War journalists have lost their independence and, with the world arranged as it is, I do not think they will soon get it back."

Writers,” Ms Clendinnen advises, must ".. reengage with new fervor, if less hope; with that old task of stretching human imaginations far enough to forgive difference. We have to stand witness to the importance of individual human lives, and so make our masters keep a closer accounting of the costs of deliberately inflicted suffering and death."

The second Iraq war revealed reporters tightly controlled by the Pentagon’s astonishing adeptness in at least one area: media management. The administration needn’t have bothered, their job already done by press HQ. Six o’clock newstainment, an incoherent joke, comprises a rambling cocktail of traffic reports from choppers with astonishing camera zooms, weather presenters’ circuses-in-miniature promoting all but the weather, brazen derelict headline dash through crucial national politics to the bloated sport segment, shameless promotion of tonight’s network programming, an idiot’s cuisine of mock-soap heart-soul-anger classics – only the footage differs – and the endless deft sprinkling of key words "gone horribly wrong road rage outrage terrorist alert uproar" … but I, again (interminably, you decide) digress.

It is this spectater’s loathing for even our public broadcasters’ fawning mimicry of corporate newscasters – shining their focus on whichever trivia might earn ratings, value-added news service be damned – that makes him pound the plastic alphabet to the wee smalls in a ranting frenzy of frustration. Were only his neighbor’s lights burning with similar fervor the world might change overnight.

Chiding is my grail, a beacon in a sea of signs. So if someone with the mental wherewithal stands up to be counted, SheepOverboard takes notice!

Inga, thank you for the sore reminder, the call to arms. From our lowly perch – our commiserable little eZine commotion – we can only wonder at the searing clarity your mind projects, scoring civilization’s skyline with blazing commonsense and uncommon sensibility.

Were we (the Sheep of Overboard) au fait generating an iota of original value to the Republic of Letters, or even to the unfashionable lesser-realms of the Internet we haunt, it would flood my penpushing heart with warmth and excite, more than a little, this dim mind.

If only.


Transcript of Inga Clenningden’s speech:

When it was suggested I might talk here tonight, I prepared a winsome little speech suitable to the occasion and to a likely stage of conviviality. I’ve decided not to use it. You people here assembled are the Republic of Letters, Victorian branch, and I don’t want to waste my opportunity. I want to talk (briefly I promise you) about something that’s been worrying me increasingly over the last several years; the de-facto abdication of writers from the business of representing the suffering of people who are not us, of making the pain of unfamiliar others real.

September 11th is now four years and a few weeks behind us, and it has proved, as we were promised, a transforming event. Recently, for example, we have been extending the reach of democracy by killing people in the hope that the survivors might get to vote. Killing people, especially killing people at a distance, is something we now do very well. But how is it that we can do it? I sometimes think Australian insouciance is in part due to our physical and political distance from the events. I heard about September 11th on a North Queensland beach (called, as it happens, Arcadia) where I was swimming and watching mothers, and fathers too, playing with their babies in the shallows. So of course I didn’t believe it.

We are also encouraged not to think beyond a certain point. We know that when armed men erupt into unarmed villages, there is likely to be rape, pillage, killings. But if it’s done by the other side, we classify these acts as unattractive tribal survivals, or if it’s done by our own men, murmur about lack of leadership or lack of education. Surely they should have learned somewhere along the way that killing or injuring innocents is wrong? And meanwhile the landmines keep exploding and the bombs-smart or stupid-keep falling.

I think it is this induced moral myopia that allows our exhilarated waging of technologised war, the culpable vagueness of our aims, above all our vagueness regarding the consequences of what we are doing. We used to believe that torturing people-the wilful infliction of pain on a powerless other-was wrong, even when they might know something we might like to know. Now ‘rendering suspects amenable to interrogation’ has slithered into the standard repertoire of tactics in the war against terror. We need a Don Watson to chronicle that systematic corruption of language.

We are also beginning to remember, after Abu Ghraib, that people used to get a lot of fun out of torture. Different kinds of fun of course; with the Aztecs it tended to be solemn, but with the Iroquois, doing an enemy to slow death was a cheerful, collective activity. Brian Moore gets it about right in that torture scene in Black Robe. Once again, evidence is rapidly accumulating that taking pleasure in other people’s pain is not against human nature. So is there a difference between them and us? We used to think there was, and that the difference was called ‘progress’ or even ‘civilisation’. In the wake of September 11th it is increasingly difficult to believe that, given the dreadful celerity of that resort to torture and then the solemn deformation of law to protect what had already become established practice.

For a long time, we writers thought that indifference to or pleasure in the pain of others could be eroded by the realisation that people strange to us are humans too. It seemed a reasonable belief; few families tortured their own, and when they do the dirty business comes wrapped in elaborate, usually religious, justifications. What we in the Republic of Letters had been trying to do for that long time (I try not to think how long) was to effect the imaginative expansion of familial sensibilities to include distant others. However, more recently I think we have de-facto relinquished that task to photographers, understandably. War photographers used to manage it with beautiful economy, beginning with those famous American Civil War photographs of the obscene flesh heaps left after battles which would soon be airbrushed into occasions of sacrificial glory. Photography helped to end a war in Vietnam. But over these last five, ten years, especially with the second Iraq war, television and print journalists have lost their freedom. We see a great deal of triumphalism but remarkably little violence, while the few brief scenes we are allowed to see-fathers weeping over children, funerals-are simply too exotic for us, we’re distanced by the wailing, the beating of breasts, not drawn closer.

Among the last high-impact photographs still appearing on American television are on Jim Lehrer’s News Hour, on, unsurprisingly, the public broadcasting system, which sometimes ends with the photographs of the American soldiers confirmed dead in Iraq on that day; in silence, the faces, the names, the ages, the home towns, always going on for longer than we can bear. This being overtly a celebration of heroes, there can be no patriotic intervention, but it is also a celebration of the casual cruelty of this war. And as we watch that sequence of young faces, we remember that the Iraqi dead are not counted at all except by those who love them and who will seek vengeance when they are able.

War journalists have lost their independence, and with the world arranged as it is, I do not think they will soon get it back. Meanwhile the great iconic photographs from the past, promiscuously reproduced, smeared with pre-packaged emotion, have lost their power to shake us. However, literature, being the unlicensed creator of intimacy between strangers, is harder to tame. I think it’s time we refreshed our strategies. Of course it’s difficult; how to represent mass killings? Through doing sums? The corpses of Hiroshima and Nagasaki civilians tallied against the corpses, Japanese and American, civilian and soldiers, who died in the battle for Okinawa? Do we perhaps need a new discipline; comparative studies in cruelty? There is something repellent about the idea. Nonetheless, I think it must be done but not, I think, by writers. We are not good at statistics. We do better with the particular. I think we have to reengage with new fervour, if less hope; with that old task of stretching human imaginations far enough to forgive difference. We have to stand witness to the importance of individual human lives, and so make our masters keep a closer accounting of the costs of deliberately inflicted suffering and death.

I had to think hard about how to do this when I was writing a book on the Holocaust. How to get past the familiar rhetoric of familiar images-photographic and metaphoric-to the jolt of helpless engagement we feel when we suddenly recognise something as real. Finally I decided I had to trust my own subjectivity, to focus on the events and the moments which most moved me, and to try to explain what it was which connected me so powerfully to them. One example, because exhortation without example isn’t much use-I used some photographs, not iconic ones with the meanings built in, but simple ones which seemed innocent until the viewer was instructed as to their context. Like more recent torturers, SS men liked to take snapshots of their work in the east to send back home to their families…what Daddy did in the war. From the scores available I chose seven and this was one of them. You need to know that at the time my granddaughter was about seven years old. Among the photographs rescued from the murderers there is one in which a small girl, of perhaps seven, walks a little behind the remnants of a family group. She walks along, head slightly bent, shoulders hunched against the cold. Above two large shoes her bare legs look thin and fragile, but she is walking resolutely with a slight air of independence. Girls of that age value independence. I cannot easily bear to look at that photograph. Had she lived, she would be an old woman by now. As it is, she is forever my granddaughter, trudging towards death in shoes too big for her.

The masters don’t need the personal link and they don’t need photographs either. Here George Orwell, describing an anonymous Burman walking (or being walked) towards the gallows:

He walked clumsily with his bound arms, but quite steadily, with that bobbing gait of the Indian who never straightens his knees. At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his head danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.

Photographs alone won’t do it any more. It’s possible that words, written or spoken, with or without photographs, might.