[notes from a nice conference here in york – “things unspeakable”]

Take This Longing: Poetry and Disaster – finding language and interdisciplinary forms of expression apt to genocide studies.


An outline:


We’ll look a disposition or premise, a couple of case, and a further reading out of practical values, relating to memorial writing.




Many men have loved the bells
you fastened to the rein,
and everyone who wanted you
they found what they will always want again.
Your beauty lost to you yourself
just as it was lost to them.

Oh take this longing from my tongue,
whatever useless things these hands have done.
Let me see your beauty broken down
like you would do for one you love.

Your body like a searchlight
my poverty revealed,
I would like to try your charity
until you cry, “Now you must try my greed.”
And everything depends upon
how near you sleep to me

What seems downbeat in Leonard Cohen’s work is the sense of the self ceding its capture to joy, which has the shape of loss to senses whose habit is to acquire, but is a slipping into union through a prayer of recollection.


While the words don’t function mathematically, let’s use them as approximate quantities to run a few equation. Desire versus Passion, as a way of getting at what Drama is, first, especially in terms of its relationship with suffering.


We’ve built a culture of desire, which is linear; it possible, practical and satisfied serially. It pursues the complete: hunger, fire. The effort to create fictions on behalf of social change can represent an effort to sustain desire and horde its satisfactions – to reward our experience of empathy and fix its cause. To sweep the flies from the eyes of babies and to make sure we never see anything but babies in distress. Our failure to complete is an insult to agency, that we look to redress again and again – a frustration rather than a meditative paradox.


Passion on the other hand is an opening onto mutual instability – fire in fire, light in light, water in water. It is impossible, and satisfied once – the moment of union is perfect darkness, the I/the eye can’t see – we move to the loss of satisfaction/consolation, rather than from achievement to achievement. It is possible, only in paradox. Passion opens onto compassion, a place emptied of ownership. Desire facing desire is a contest. Wallace Stevens – Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction (1942)


The sun
Must bear no name, gold flourisher, but be
In the difficulty of what it is to be.


Two things of opposite natures seem to depend
On one another, as the imagined

On the real. This is the origin of change. [Drama]

The poet
Evades us

He tries by a peculiar speech to speak

The peculiar potency of the general

To impose is not
To discover. To discover an order as of
A season, to discover summer and know it,

To discover winter and know it well, to find
Not to impose, not to have reasoned at all,
Out of nothing to have come on major weather,

It is possible, possible, possible. It must
Be possible. It must be that in time
The real will from its crude compoundings come.

To find the real,
To be stripped of every fiction except one,

The fiction of an absolute —


In this territory (describing compassionate drama) I can’t quite say what I mean, which suggests I’m going in the right direction. As a student recently wrote in response to Weil’s essay on Evil: “I do not want to be evil, certainly. I do not want to be good, either. Out of the good and in service of the good have we pushed the good to become a false-good, something grotesque, a mechanism.” So desiring not be be either good or evil, but to be, trusting that existence is personal in a way we can’t describe and merciful in a way we can’t explain.


Blake: An angel ries to frighten a diabolic poet into obedience with visions of hell. The poet: “I now asked my companion which was my eternal lot? he said, ‘between the black & white spiders.’ [The poet lives between the printed word and its absence – Prayers plow not! Praises reap not!
Joys laugh not! Sorrows weep not!]


“Opposition is true Friendship.

“Note: This Angel, who is now become a Devil, is my particular friend; we often read the Bible together in its infernal or diabolical sense which the world shall have if they behave well. For every thing that lives is Holy.”


Theater is mixed, but mostly it is evil. Simone Weil defines evil as that which isn’t God, that which is created, and for her evil has value as our path to God – we crawl through creation on our way to God, and this journey clarifies and magnifies love (the love we give and the love that saves us). Theater, being created, is either nothing in itself, or it is evil – a pretext, an illusion that serves as the experiemntal path to our decreation and reunion. It is the necessary violation of silence, what consiousness has to reach with and across. Its state is such that sanctimony is more than exageration – it is hypocracy. It does well to retain a sense of its uselessness. The best play is the one so complete that we can successfully refrain from writing it.


Going back to Cohen: we’ve loved the bells fastened to the reins. The face we’ve loved is not the face we knew before we were born, bodies like serchlights. We know each other best in poverty. We want, wew want greedily, but want as love wants, not as we want… sliding over to Van Morrison – the loves that loves to love. “And everything depends upon how near you sleep to me” – There is outcome, there is assessment, but without hierarchy. Audience and author, social servant and the served, are as week as each other, proximate with neither enclosing the other, or superceding the other in a hierarchy; mutual sleep.


Maybe not mysticism you can dance to, but mysticism you can sway to.


If we’re having trouble articulating a way to go may be to improve our inarticulation before we make the awful mistake of saying anything. It is the habit of nature to create at the point of weakness, as with a river, and in the study of massive failure, radical cracking we should fail absolutely, spiritually.


It is in the range of normal theater practice to seek out, confirm, and sustain community, and to convey information. But: this is not what theater is best at. It is best at promoting conundrum, inefficiency, perplexity, argument and entrapment within wonder. I encourage social sciences and the law to pursue theater for what it is by nature – a problem; a worked out way of summoning the whole of ourselves to what is wholly impersonal and unreal in a conventional sense, but not in the true sense. This can spare partners (in interview, for example) re-tramuatizaton – because we’re not repeating or revisiting events – we’re bursting them, not to change their difficulty – but to make space in them.


“Things Unspeakable” – Let’s decreate things – eschew them, open them. And lets refine unspeach as our dialect.

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