Tuesday, November 17, 2015


The 'creditor' always becomes more humane as his wealth increases; finally, the amount of his wealth determines how much injury he can sustain without suffering from it. It is not impossible to imagine society so conscious of its power that is could allow itself the noblest luxury available to it, – that of letting its malefactors go unpunished. 'What do I care about my parasites', it could say, 'let them live and flourish: I am strong enough for all that!' . . . Justice, which began by saying 'Everything can be paid off, everything must be paid off', ends by turning a blind eye and letting off those unable to pay, – it ends, like every good thing on earth, by sublimating itself. The self-sublimation of justice: we know what a nice name it gives itself – mercy; it remains, of course, the prerogative of the most powerful man, better still, his way of being beyond the law. – Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, Second Essay, Section 10, trans. Carol Diethe
Friday evening, after hearing the news from France, we left to attend a modern dance performance. On the surface, it would appear as if we were countering mourning and fear by affirming art, culture, sociability. But scratch the thinness of the surface and we encounter even more violence.

All culture is predicated upon various registers of violence; that's why the false dilemma of terrorism and culture is even more dangerous. "They" don't hate us for our "culture" any more than our "culture" rescues and redeems us from "them." All culture is a culture of violence.

The Marxist register of violence, formed by economic injustice, is maybe the easiest one to get your head around. It says that the arts that are practiced by a society are built upon the backs of the working class, of those who are excluded from "high" art. Miners and factory workers don't attend the opera; yet the opera wouldn't have developed except for the leisure afforded the nobility and bourgeoisie–the artist class–by the proletariat, the cannon fodder, the serfs and slaves. You don't have Paris, London, and New York without the Congo. (This, of course, should go without saying, but I'll nevertheless say it: just because Paris was relatively quiet, such quietude was relative, perhaps inversely so to the sheer level of (both explicit and sublimated) violence it took for a Paris to come into existence.)

A more insidious form of the Marxist register can be excavated with the aid of the Frankfurt School and those on its periphery (Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Angela Davis). This view can be summed up with a quotation from Benjamin's On the Concept of History:
For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another. (Seventh Thesis.)
This is Marcuse's project of liberation from the affluent society. This is Adorno's critique of the nach Auschwitz world. This is Davis's analysis of state violence: "because of the way this society is organized, because of the violence that exists on the surface everywhere, you have to expect that there are going to be such explosions."

It's not merely the violence perpetrated upon the working class and disenfranchised but an active state apparatus of violence as well that enforces and disciplines its subjects so that violence–always already sublimated by the state, by the culture at large–even becomes increasingly sublimated by the individual. I no longer even recognize the ways in which the forces, the nexus of power/knowledge, shape my own thinking, "my own" expressions of force. (This, I think, is the shrewdest definition of ideology, and something that needs to be developed, better understood.) The mythology of the suffering artist, the rigorous discipline artists demand of themselves both stems from the necessary violence of culture as well as nourishes it.

Art becomes yet another register, expression, praxis of violence. Attending the opera, the ballet, the Jackson Pollock exhibit neither insulates nor inoculates us from the ineluctable savagery that undergirds and maintains our culture. In other words, we are our own parasites; in rejecting strength, in forgoing mercy, we have sublimated our own sublimation of violence. We are the ones who require, demand mercy, and the ones who can ill afford–ill accord–it.

Only a rigorous agenda of critique, of deconstruction, can otherwise liberate us out from this quagmire.
  1. None of this is in any way an attempt to excuse the behavior of terrorists, whether in the current form or in a historical (and therefore already sublimated) form.
  2. I do not understand this analysis as nihilistic. That is, it necessarily concludes that there is something to be done (i.e., a rigorous agenda of critique, of deconstruction) that can help to recalibrate the wrongs of (both current and historical) violence, to move us toward a different power/knowledge, and to come to a time when we no longer create our own enemies.
  3. The sublimated (as well as implicit) structures of violence have been known to us for a long time. There is nothing new here. Many of the philosophers I reference are from the early or mid twentieth century, and Nietzsche's text was written in 1887. Also, the argument I (and they) make is but a Western one within the framework of European philosophy; these structures, however, have been known for centuries through, among others, Buddhist and Taoist writings. We merely need to relearn to stop participating within our culture-violence dynamic. Admittedly, much too much hinges on that "merely."

Saturday, November 14, 2015


“Światu grożą trzy plagi, trzy zarazy. Pierwsza–to plaga nacjonalizmu. Druga–to plaga rasizmu. Trzecia–to plaga religijnego fundamentalizmu. Te trzy plagi mają samą cechę, wspólny mianownik–jest nim agresywna, wszechwładna, totalna irracjonalność. Do umysłu porażonego jedną a tych plag nie sposób dotrzeć. W takiej głowie pali się święty stos, który tylko czeka na ofiary … Umysł tknięty taką zarazą to umysł zamknięty, jednowymiarowy, monotematyczny, obracający się wyłącznie wokół jednego wątku–swojego wroga. Myśl o wrogu żywi nas, pozwala nam istnieć. Dlatego wróg jest zawsze obecny, jest zawsze z nami.”–Ryszard Kapuściński, Imperium

“Three plagues, three afflictions threaten the world. The first is the plague of nationalism. The second is the plague of racism. The third is the plague of religious fundamentalism. These three plagues have the same feature, a common denominator, which is an aggressive, all-powerful, total irrationality. There’s no way to get through to the mind of somebody afflicted with one of these plagues. In such a head burns a sacred bonfire that’s just waiting for a victim…. The mind touched by such an affliction is a mind closed, one-dimensional, monothematic, revolving solely around one motif: its enemy. The thought of an enemy nourishes us, it enables us to exist. That’s why the enemy is always present, is always with us.”–Ryszard Kapuściński, my translation

Z nie odbytej wyprawy w Himalaje

Aha, więc to są Himalaje.
Góry w biegu na księżyc.
Chwila startu utrwalona
na rozprutym nagle niebie.
Pustynia chmur przebita.
Uderzenie w nic.
Echo—biała niemowa.

Yeti, niżej jest środa,
abecadło, chleb
i dwa a dwa to cztery,
i topnieje śnieg.
Jest czerwone jabłuszko
przekrojone na krzyż.

Yeti, nie tylko zbrodnie
są u nas możliwe.
Yeti, nie wszystkie słowa
skazują na śmierć.

Dziedziczymy nadzieję—
dar zapominania.
Zobaczysz, jak rodzimy
dzieci na ruinach.

Yeti, Szekspira mamy.
Yeti, na skrzypcach gramy.
Yeti, o zmroku
zapalamy światło.

Tu—ni księżyc, ni ziemia
i łzy zamarzają.
O Yeti Półtwardowski,
zastanów się, wróć!

Tak w czterech ścianach lawin
wołałam do Yeti
przytupując dla rozgrzewki
na śniegu
na wiecznym.

–Wisława Szymborska

From an Untaken Expedition to the Himalayas

So these are the Himalayas.
Mountains rushing to the moon.
The instant of their origin hastily
preserved in the unraveling sky.
A perforated wilderness of clouds.
A collision with nothingness.
Echo—white and voiceless.
A hush.

Yeti, down there is Wednesday,
ABCs, bread,
and two plus two is four,
and snow melts.
There’s a little red apple
cut crosswise and ready to share.

Yeti, it’s not just crimes
we’re capable of.
Yeti, not all sentences
are death sentences.

We inherit hope—
the gift of forgetting.
You’ll see how we give birth
among the ruins.

Yeti, we have Shakespeare.
Yeti, we play violins.
Yeti, at dusk
we turn on a light.

Here, there’s neither moon nor earth,
and tears freeze.
Oh, Yeti—not quite a Faust—
think about it, come back!

Walled-in thus by avalanches,
I shouted to Yeti,
tapping my foot to keep warm
in this snow

–Wisława Szymborska, my translation

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Moja droga (Part 2)

After two months as a Peace Corps Trainee I left. I left the Corps. I left Poland. I returned to Texas disenchanted, discouraged, and disappointed. Not necessarily in that order. There are many reasons why I left.

The top two reasons I left the Peace Corps, despite the decade-long desire to join: 1) I had a fundamental, philosophical disagreement with the neocolonialist ideology permeating the Corps. Our trainers were much too concerned with us preaching the good news of so-called free market economics and not as concerned with us teaching English as a foreign language, which was, of course, what we were hired to do. My idealism and critical mind required I leave, and it wasn't only me. I was the thirteenth person to leave in the two months I was there. We were dropping like flies.

2) I had fallen in love with my best friend after graduating college and before I had left the US. This relationship was something I wanted to explore, something I thought deserved a chance. He had talked about joining the Corps or coming to visit, but sacrificing what had been my goal seemed like a worthwhile act, especially since I found my trainers so distasteful.

With two months of Polish language training behind me, I continued my studies when I returned to Texas and we moved to Austin. I took a class at UT. And after we moved back to the Dallas area and I began the MA program, I decided, after a course in Holocaust literature, to apply for a study abroad grant in order to study Polish while conducting research on the Holocaust for my thesis.

From October 1995 to March 1996 I studied Polish intensively at the intermediate level. After completing the MA I left for Japan for a two-year teaching job at a private university. While I was there I continued my Polish language studies; I even taught Polish to a Japanese woman for several months. After my contract was up, I returned to my Polish university to complete the advanced program during the summer months of 1999.

I was back in Poland for a few days in 2000 on my way to and from Ukraine, where I had a grant to learn Ukrainian. Then I applied for the Fulbright as an independent scholar to conduct research in Warsaw from September 2001 until June 2002. My project focused on lustration and attempts to de-communize the Polish government. It was really during my Fulbright that I became aware how odd I was: I was the only grantee with absolutely no genealogical connection to Poland; my name was the only one of the Fulbrighters that didn't end with a -ski or a -ska or a -czyk.

Several years later, I completed the PhD; one of my fields was translation. And even more years later, I finally had the thought, after giving up the delusion of an academic career, to put my Polish and translation and literature background to use and actually begin translating. Welcome to my world. Blah blah blah.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Moja droga (Part 1)

Maybe she had asked the question before; maybe she'd forgotten my rambling answer. I vaguely remember, perhaps, that we'd had this conversation sitting, no less, at a coffee shop in Warsaw. Or during a previous trip to San Francisco, undoubtedly over coffee. But while visiting my friend Jola a few weeks ago, she asked a question, perhaps again, that many others have asked throughout my seemingly bizarre life: why do I know Polish? Such a question demands more than "because I like it" or "because I studied it." These are my typical, smart-alecky answers. Both, though, are far from the truth. Let me try to get a little closer.

While growing up in Reagan's America–a time I, before having a similar conversation with someone who had lived through the nuclear disaster training of the 1950s, used to describe hyperbolically as "the height of the Cold War"–I never quite believed the Soviets were the bad guys. Despite my love of Cold War espionage films and TV, I had always assumed that the Soviets were no more evil than we Americans. I never gave much weight to the the good-guy/bad-guy mythology. Although I do remember a time when, because of the sophisticated rhetoric used by the media and politicians, I thought there were neither car accidents nor divorces in the Soviet Union. The way they were described, it was as if Camazotz had come vividly to life on the other side of the world.

On top of an already initially critical view of the US vs. them narrative, I loved Russian music, Soviet composers. Throughout elementary and high school, I studied piano; the last three years of high school I was in band and began studying music on my own. The first two years of college I was a music major, focusing on piano performance. Of course, there were the standards: Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, and Tchaikovsky. But also the new guys: Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Kabalevsky, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky. And then there was Khachaturian, whose Toccata in E-flat minor was one of my go-to pieces for competition.

Music and an interest in Russian/Soviet culture led to an important decision as a student: to find a program where I could study the language. During my last years as an undergraduate, I moved away from performance altogether and toward studies rooted in language and culture, literature and the humanities. I would complete a BA with a minor in Soviet Studies the year that the Soviet Union dissolved. Even history, it seemed, was bent on making a mockery of my life.

Alongside these developments was a growing idealism that I remember from as early as fifth grade. I wanted to travel the world, to study different cultures, to get as far away from the poverty of East Texas as I could. I toyed with a few ways to make that happen and decided that the Peace Corps would be my route. Since I was ten, I had wanted to join. Before my last year of college, I sent in my application. Because the Soviet sphere was opening up, there were plenty of opportunities throughout Central and Eastern Europe. My Russian/Soviet studies helped with my application, even more, thank goodness, than growing up on a farm. When I was accepted by the Peace Corps, my assignment was Poland. And irony of ironies: my host family during my in-country Peace Corps training lived on a farm.

And that, dear reader, dear Jola, is how I managed to find myself in Poland studying Polish. Why–and how–I stayed with it is another story.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Mountain and the Wall (Book Review)

My literary education includes many of the great twentieth-century novelists of world literature, such as Salman Rushdie, Carlos Fuentes, Isabel Allende, and Günter Grass. Fortuitously, I studied this literature with Wendy Faris, one of the great scholars of magical realism, who opened up the entire world of contemporary literature for me as an undergraduate. I was only through the first 100 pages of Alisa Ganieva's novel The Mountain and the Wall (trans. Carol Apollonio, pub. Deep Vellum) when I realized I had been reading something equally delectable, enchanting, and momentous. Ganieva reveals herself to be a top-tier storyteller on a par with these greats.

The Mountain and the Wall is broad and sweeping in its historical consciousness, its mythologizing, and its narrativizing–its ability to make some of the most mundane acts the basis of an engrossing story. Ganieva achieves this in a story that takes place over the course of a couple of days in Dagestan, a country of about three million people on the Caspian Sea. The novel follows Shamil as he walks the street of the capital trying to make sense of the rumors in circulation: the Russians, in sheer exasperation with the republics of the Caucasus region, are building a wall on their border. It's a plausible premise that resonates not only in Texas (where I am) but also across Europe, across the globe. Our history shows us to be a walled-in creature, Homo muratis. Ganieva is our sibyl.

This is more than a story about Shamil, or a wall, or a mountain, however. At 245 pages, you'll notice that it's also considerably shorter than many of the novels by the pantheon of writers mentioned above. But like intricate origami, this story unfolds and unfolds. Shamil's story opens up multiple stories within stories. We read Shamil as he reads–sometimes skipping pages–through the various layers of Dagestan: its Socialist Realist past as part of the Soviet Union, as well the conflict between its two present narratives: a call to jihad versus a nationalist panegyric. These are the texts, the contents of the texts, that Shamil reads, and in reading, he excavates the plurivocality and multidimensionality of the Caucasus nation that is "both small and large." This is metafiction at its finest.

Reading headlines today, we can wonder how someone falls for the jihadist line, how someone can respond to an extremist's call to arms. Ganieva shows us how. Through this exquisitely crafted tale, she weaves the storylines of her characters in such a way that taking the veil is as viable a response to the socioeconomic disorder as drinking oneself into oblivion or retreating to the vagaries of the black market of bribes. The novel, as an eloquent understatement, offers an explanation: such radicals depend on the incredulity of the people. "Something like that can't happen here!" we continue to exclaim as those very things happen more and more frequently, more intractably.

But The Mountain and the Wall is not an easy, moralizing book. Many of the characters seek answers to questions they don't yet even know how to ask. It seems, aside from the Salafis, that everyone is desperately trying to make sense of their world, like the scholar who groans and curses as he sorts through "the books, which his wife had arranged by size and color, trying to find the places he had marked so carefully" (193). Every detail (much like every historical, cultural, and ethnic particularity) had been made the same, which is not only a repeated literary device but also the novel's instinctive critique of both colonialism and post-colonialism.

The jihadists, who are so certain of their interpretation and the Truth of the Prophet, must resort to Russian, the lingua franca of Russia's most heterogeneous republic. But they can't even reconcile the language they're forced to use with the force their faith requires. The radicals don't know Arabic and have all but lost command of their native tongues. When posters appear across the capital urging the citizens to burn everything written from left to right, the people realize they they would have to burn even the posters themselves since they were written in Russian. This is but one of the many comic insights and clever ironies that Ganieva scatters throughout her text. She has inherited this trait straight from Dostoevsky.

Translator Carol Apollonio exhibits a nuance of language that makes this novel a pleasure to read in English. She effortlessly navigates the tricky shifts between characters, voices, and embedded genres. I applaud her for the way she contends with the overabundance of ethnic and religious terms. It is no exaggeration to say that the English-speaking world is indebted to her.

The nexus of narratives and the subtlety of the translation would've benefited, I think, by a more useful and user-friendly Glossary. I would've liked for it to have contained more entries and to be properly alphabetized. It seemed that close to one-third of all special vocabulary and italicized terms were not to be found there. Even the dictionaries I used and Wikipedia did not have entries for some of the terms. I was never able to find any information, for example, about Gamalkar and Untul Ebel, two Dagestani mountain deities (or spirits or devils?), beyond their brief mention in the text (220-221).

There were also some terms whose Glossary entry didn't quite get it right. For example, the entry on sabur simply states that it's Arabic for patience. But near the end of the novel, one character tells another, "Say a sabur, sister, your husband isn't there right now..." (239) which contextually seems to imply that a sabur is a type of prayer. After about ten minutes on Google, I finally found reference to the As-Sabur, one of the many names from the Koran for God (as the Patient One). Reciting this name 3000 times will allegedly rescue the person from difficulty. I know many translators who cringe at the thought, but even more footnotes would've been appreciated.

Regardless of this minor criticism, I wholeheartedly and without reservation urge you to read this book. Let it astound you the way it astounded me.