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Great conversation with Melanie Joseph of the Foundry yesterday, over kasha and eggs at B+H. Talked about the debilitating effects of complaint (along with its service as a goad), the value of the small right work, the importance of invitation… At one point she pulled out a copy of the Paris Review (1195, #137) and read aloud from an interview with George Steiner… She read until her voice gave out (a bad cold!) – and then had me continue… Wonderful thinking! In re the Soulographie mission: “Could something make us incapable of certain imperceptions, incapable of certain blindnesses, deafnesses? Is there something that would make the imagination responsible and answerable to the reality principles of being human all around us?”

 

Our pieces, produced and assembled as they are, move to this: a space where imagination is shaken awake and made alert to the prospects of responsibility. Information is in the mix, as are call to action – but the focused goal is to bring about this wakeful disposition to responsibility, on path to action…

 

The following is quotation from the Review:

 

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For me the personal turning point was Pol Pot. Very few knew at the time about Auschwitz. Yes, there were bastards who knew, there were sons of bitches who knew and who didn’t believe it, but they were a tiny number. Nazi secrecy on this was fantastically efficient. The killing fields were on radio and television while they were going on, and we were told that Pol Pot was burying alive one hundred thousand men, women and children. Now I cannot attach honest meaning to the phrase “to bury alive one man, woman or child.” One hundred thousand! I almost went out of my mind in those days with bitter impotence. I was obsessed with the hope that Russia and America would say, “We don’t know what the rights and wrongs of this incredible geopolitical mess are but forty-five years after the Holocaust or after the gulag, we can’t shave in the morning, we can’t look at ourselves, knowing a hundred thousand people are being buried alive; the razor doesn’t work on the skin. No woman can put on her makeup and think of herself as human. If you don’t stop this, we’ll come in.” I’d hoped Israel would make such a statement, for obvious reasons. Total silence, total silence about any intervention or interference. Pol Pot went on, he buried them alive, he killed a million and a half others, castrating people alive in the fields, and today we’re selling arms to him.

Now, Cambodia was for me the turning point to a kind of absolute helplessness, of despair. Rwanda has come since and tomorrow, x, y or z. And this time we know. I do make the— and here I use an almost pompous word — ontological distinction, the quintessential distinction between a time when we didn’t know and probably could have done nothing about it (whether or not we should have bombed the rail lines remains one of the bitterest Auschwitz arguments; we should have tried; okay) and this time, when we knew the adversary was a minnow, was nothing compared to the power of the rest of the world: Monsieur Pol Pot and his crazed Khmer Rouge. Nothing was done, and we are now rearming him.

 

INTERVIEWER (Ronald Sharp)

What are the implications, then, for your work as a teacher?

 

STEINER

I’ve been extremely troubled by this. The implications are that I keep trying to put this to those who learn to read with me. I’d love to be remembered as a good teacher of reading, and I mean remedial reading in a deeply moral sense: the reading should commit us to a vision, should engage our humanity, should make us less capable of passing by. But I don’t know that I’ve succeeded, either for others or for myself.

Is there any kind of education, schooling in poetry, music, art, philosophy that would make a human being unable to shave in the morning — forgive this banal image — because of the mirror throwing back at him something inhuman or subhuman? That’s what I keep hammering at in my own thinking, in my own writing. Hence the move in Real Presences, coming around that immensely difficult corner, towards theology. What about the great poets, the great artists who have known about such things — Dante, for example, or Shakespeare? Could something make us incapable of certain imperceptions, incapable of certain blindnesses, deafnesses? Is there something that would make the imagination responsible and answerable to the reality principles of being human all around us? That’s the question.

 

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