Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Walter Benjamin

What It Means to Be a Moral Human Being

Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) spent a lifetime contemplating the role of writing in both the inner world of the writer and outer universe of readers, which we call culture

From her prolific essays and talks on the task of literature to her beautiful letter to Borges to her decades of reflections on writing recorded in her diaries.

But nowhere did she address the singular purpose of storytelling and the social responsibility of the writer with more piercing precision than in one of her last public appearances — a tremendous lecture on South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer titled “At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning,” which Sontag delivered shortly before her death in 2004.

The speech is included in and lends its title to the endlessly enriching posthumous anthology At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (public library), which also gave us Sontag on beauty vs. interestingness, courage and resistance, and literature and freedom.

Maria Popova posted:

Sontag begins with the quintessential question asked of, and answered by, all prominent writers — to distill their most essential advice on the craft:

I’m often asked if there is something I think writers ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: “Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.”

Needless to say, no sooner had these perky phrases fallen out of my mouth than I thought of some more recipes for writer’s virtue.

For instance: “Be serious.” By which I meant: Never be cynical. And which doesn’t preclude being funny.

What might Sontag say of the exponentially more exacting struggle against the cultural momentum of cynicism a mere decade later?

With the disclaimer that “descriptions mean nothing without examples,” Sontag points to Gordimer as the “living writer who exemplifies all that a writer can be” and considers what the South African author’s “large, ravishingly eloquent, and extremely varied body of work” reveals about the key to all great writing:

A great writer of fiction both creates — through acts of imagination, through language that feels inevitable, through vivid forms — a new world, a world that is unique, individual; and responds to a world, the world the writer shares with other people but is unknown or mis-known by still more people, confined in their worlds: call that history, society, what you will.

She cautions that despite all the noble uses of literature, despite all the ways in which it can transcend the written word to achieve a larger spiritual purpose — William Faulkner’s conviction that the writer’s duty is “to help man endure by lifting his heart” comes to mind — storytelling is still literature’s greatest duty:

The primary task of a writer is to write well. (And to go on writing well. Neither to burn out nor to sell out.) … Let the dedicated activist never overshadow the dedicated servant of literature — the matchless storyteller.

Echoing Walter Benjamin’s ideas on how storytelling transmutes information into wisdom — Sontag was a great admirer and rereader of his work — she adds:

To write is to know something. What a pleasure to read a writer who knows a great deal. (Not a common experience these days…) Literature, I would argue, is knowledge — albeit, even at its greatest, imperfect knowledge. Like all knowledge.

Still, even now, even now, literature remains one of our principal modes of understanding.

Everybody in our debauched culture invites us to simplify reality, to despise wisdom. There is a great deal of wisdom in Nadine Gordimer’s work. She has articulated an admirably complex view of the human heart and the contradictions inherent in living in literature and in history.

Nearly half a century after E.B. White proclaimed that the writer’s duty is “to lift people up, not lower them down,” Sontag considers “the idea of the responsibility of the writer to literature and to society” and clarifies the terms:

By literature, I mean literature in the normative sense, the sense in which literature incarnates and defends high standards.

By society, I mean society in the normative sense, too — which suggests that a great writer of fiction, by writing truthfully about the society in which she or he lives, cannot help but evoke (if only by their absence) the better standards of justice and of truthfulness that we have the right (some would say the duty) to militate for in the necessarily imperfect societies in which we live.

Obviously, I think of the writer of novels and stories and plays as a moral agent

This doesn’t entail moralizing in any direct or crude sense. Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own.

They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate — and, therefore, improve — our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.

In a sentiment that calls to mind French polymath Henri Poincaré’s assertion that creativity is the act of choosing the good ideas from among the bad ones, Sontag defines what a writer does and is:

Every writer of fiction wants to tell many stories, but we know that we can’t tell all the stories — certainly not simultaneously. We know we must pick one story, well, one central story; we have to be selective.

The art of the writer is to find as much as one can in that story, in that sequence … in that time (the timeline of the story), in that space (the concrete geography of the story).

A novelist, then, is someone who takes you on a journey. Through space. Through time. A novelist leads the reader over a gap, makes something go where it was not.

Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once … and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.


The work of the novelist is to enliven time, as it is to animate space.

Repeating her memorable assertion that criticism is “cultural cholesterol,” penned in her diary decades earlier, Sontag considers the reactive indignation that passes for criticism:

Most notions about literature are reactive — in the hands of lesser talents, merely reactive.

The greatest offense now, in matters both of the arts and of culture generally, not to mention political life, is to seem to be upholding some better, more exigent standard, which is attacked, both from the left and the right, as either naïve or (a new banner for the philistines) “elitist.”

Writing nearly a decade before the golden age of ebooks and some years before the epidemic of crowdsourced-everything had infected nearly every corner of creative culture, Sontag once again reveals her extraordinary prescience about the intersection of technology, society, and the arts.

(Some decades earlier, she had presaged the “aesthetic consumerism” of visual culture on the social web.) Turning a critical eye to the internet and its promise — rather, its threat — of crowdsourced storytelling, she writes:

Hypertext — or should I say the ideology of hypertext? — is ultrademocratic and so entirely in harmony with the demagogic appeals to cultural democracy that accompany (and distract one’s attention from) the ever-tightening grip of plutocratic capitalism.

[But the] proposal that the novel of the future will have no story or, instead, a story of the reader’s (rather, readers’) devising is so plainly unappealing and, should it come to pass, would inevitably bring about not the much-heralded death of the author but the extinction of the reader — all future readers of what is labeled as “literature.”

Returning to the writer’s crucial task of selecting what story to tell from among all the stories that could be told, Sontag points to literature’s essential allure — the comfort of appeasing our anxiety about life’s infinite possibility, about all the roads not taken and all the immensities not imagined that could have led to a better destination than our present one.

A story, instead, offers the comforting finitude of both time and possibility:

Every fictional plot contains hints and traces of the stories it has excluded or resisted in order to assume its present shape. Alternatives to the plot ought to be felt up to the last moment. These alternatives constitute the potential for disorder (and therefore of suspense) in the story’s unfolding.

Endings in a novel confer a kind of liberty that life stubbornly denies us: to come to a full stop that is not death and discover exactly where we are in relation to the events leading to a conclusion.

The pleasure of fiction is precisely that it moves to an ending. And an ending that satisfies is one that excludes. Whatever fails to connect with the story’s closing pattern of illumination the writer assumes can be safely left out of the account.

A novel is a world with borders. For there to be completeness, unity, coherence, there must be borders. Everything is relevant in the journey we take within those borders.

One could describe the story’s end as a point of magical convergence for the shifting preparatory views: a fixed position from which the reader sees how initially disparate things finally belong together.

Once again echoing Walter Benjamin’s wise discrimination between storytelling and information, Sontag considers the two contrasting models “competing for our loyalty and attention”:

There is an essential … distinction between stories, on the one hand, which have, as their goal, an end, completeness, closure, and, on the other hand, information, which is always, by definition, partial, incomplete, fragmentary.

For Sontag, these two modes of world-building are best exemplified by the dichotomy between literature and the commercial mass media.

Writing in 2004, she saw television as the dominant form of the latter, but it’s striking to consider how true her observations hold today if we substitute “the internet” for every mention of “television.”

One can only wonder what Sontag would make of our newsfeed-fetishism and our compulsive tendency to mistake the latest and most urgent for the most important. She writes:

Literature tells stories. Television gives information.

Literature involves. It is the re-creation of human solidarity. Television (with its illusion of immediacy) distances — immures us in our own indifference.

The so-called stories that we are told on television satisfy our appetite for anecdote and offer us mutually canceling models of understanding.

(This is reinforced by the practice of punctuating television narratives with advertising.) They implicitly affirm the idea that all information is potentially relevant (or “interesting”), that all stories are endless — or if they do stop, it is not because they have come to an end but, rather, because they have been upstaged by a fresher or more lurid or eccentric story.

By presenting us with a limitless number of nonstopped stories, the narratives that the media relate — the consumption of which has so dramatically cut into the time the educated public once devoted to reading — offer a lesson in amorality and detachment that is antithetical to the one embodied by the enterprise of the novel.

Indeed, this notion of moral obligation is what Sontag sees as the crucial differentiator between storytelling and information — something I too have tussled with, a decade later, in contemplating the challenge of cultivating wisdom in the age of information, particularly in a media landscape driven by commercial interest whose very business model is predicated on conditioning us to confuse information with meaning.

(Why think about what constitutes a great work of art — how it moves you, what it says to your soul — when you can skim the twenty most expensive paintings in history on a site like Buzzfeed

Sontag, who had admonished against reducing culture to “content” half a century before the term became the currency of said commercial media, writes:

In storytelling as practiced by the novelist, there is always … an ethical component. This ethical component is not the truth, as opposed to the falsity of the chronicle.

It is the model of completeness, of felt intensity, of enlightenment supplied by the story, and its resolution — which is the opposite of the model of obtuseness, of non-understanding, of passive dismay, and the consequent numbing of feeling, offered by our media-disseminated glut of unending stories.

Television gives us, in an extremely debased and untruthful form, a truth that the novelist is obliged to suppress in the interest of the ethical model of understanding peculiar to the enterprise of fiction: namely, that the characteristic feature of our universe is that many things are happening at the same time.

(“Time exists in order that it doesn’t happen all at once… space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.”)

And therein lies Sontag’s greatest, most timeless, most urgently timely point — for writers, and for human beings:

To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.

To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.

When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.

The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention — a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched.

But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one’s head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding — which is also the understanding of the novelist — to take this in.

At the Same Time is an indispensable read in its entirety — an eternally nourishing serving of wisdom from one of the most expansive and luminous minds humanity ever produced.

Complement it with Sontag on love, art, how polarities imprison us, why lists appeal to us, and the joy of rereading beloved books, then revisit this evolving archive of celebrated writers’ advice on writing.

“Escaping Beirut”, the Elizabeth Taylor of cities, and An Unnecessary Woman

In a passage of the Lebanese writer Rabih Alameddine’s first novel Koolaids (1998), one character says:

I fucking hate the Lebanese. I hate them. They are so fucked up. They think they are so great, and for what reason?

Has there been a single artist of note? A scientist, an athlete? They are so proud of [Lebanese novelist Khalil] Gibran. Probably the most overrated writer in history. I don’t think any Lebanese has ever read him. If they had, they would keep their mouth fucking shut.…

The happiest day in my life was when I got my American citizenship and was able to tear up my Lebanese passport. That was great. Then I got to hate Americans.…

I tried so hard to rid myself of anything Lebanese. I hate everything Lebanese. But I never could. It seeps through my entire being. The harder I tried, the more it showed up in the unlikeliest of places. But I never gave up.

Robyn Creswell published in the NY Review of Books on March 25, 2014
Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos
Beirut, 1972

Many of the funniest moments in Alameddine’s work—and he is essentially a comic writer—revolve around the difficulties of trying to escape the past.

The heroes of his fiction are all misfits of one sort or another. They rebel against what they take to be the tyrannical conventions of Lebanese society—its patriarchy, its sexual norms, its sectarianism.

In most of Alameddine’s novels this revolt takes the form of flight to America, what one character calls an escape “from the land of conformism to the land of individualism.” (Alameddine is from a prominent Lebanese Druze family and has lived much of his life in San Francisco.)

Looming behind these singular stories is the larger history of dislocation caused by the civil war, when many Lebanese—the ones who could—left. In America, Alameddine’s characters discover that the pleasures of individualism often turn out to be empty, and their host country’s foreign policy, particularly its support for Israel, is a constant irritant. So their emigration is only ever partial; the old world haunts all their attempts at reinvention.

In Alameddine’s new novel,  An Unnecessary Woman, the narrator, Aaliya Saleh, is a septuagenarian literary translator who has stayed in Beirut—“the Elizabeth Taylor of cities,” as she calls it, “insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart.”

But Aaliya does not feel at home in her native city. For most of the novel, she walks through her neighborhood in West Beirut, remembering how it used to be, before “the virulent cancer we call concrete spread throughout the capital, devouring every living surface.” She recalls past lovers and favorite books, as well as the bitterness of her family life.

In Aaliya’s case, estrangement from her relatives and from the city she lives in has led to an internal emigration. “I slipped into art to escape life,” she tells us. “I sneaked off into literature.”

When not wandering Beirut’s streets, she remains in her apartment, communing with tutelary spirits—every New Year, she lights two candles for Walter Benjamin. In her old age she has become more and more devoted to her art and the pleasures of her own mind, a latter-day version of modernist mandarins from Valéry’s Monsieur Teste to Canetti’s Professor Kien. Aaliya’s name, as she likes to remind us, means “above,” or “the one on high.”

Aaliya is a childless divorcee in a country where social life revolves around the family. But the deeper source of alienation is her “blind lust for the written word.” Her day job is at an independent bookstore with no clientele.

And as a translator, Aaliya is not just a reader, but a reader in extremis. Her tastes run to what we now call “world literature”: W.G. Sebald, José Saramago, Javier Marías, and Danilo Kiš (she works from the French or English versions). This is a lonely passion. “Literature in the Arab world, in and of itself, isn’t sought after,” she informs us. “Literature in translation? Translation of a translation? Why bother.” Aaliya has translated 37 books into Arabic; none have been published. She’s never bothered to try.

Aaliya is not a very convincing translator. With no hope of publishing her work, she claims to be driven only by her esteem for the great writers and the joy she takes in the activity itself. This is already a little sentimental, but her description of her work is simply implausible:

My translating is a Wagner opera. The narrative sets up, the tension builds, the music ebbs and flows, the strings, the horns, more tension, and suddenly a moment of pure pleasure. Gabriel blows his golden trumpet, ambrosial fragrance fills the air sublime, and gods descend from Olympus to dance—most heavenly this peak of ecstasy.

Whatever she’s doing, it isn’t translating. Not because the job is joyless, but because its satisfactions come from the experience of obstacles faced and overcome, or skillfully finessed.

In Aaliya’s account, it is one moment of bliss after another. This is typical of her relation to literature in general. An Unnecessary Woman is a kind of commonplace book, stuffed with citations from Aaliya’s favorite novels and poems. Everything that happens to her provokes a literary reminiscence: an unwelcome neighbor makes her think of Sartre (“Hell is other people”), which makes her think of Vallejo (“the torment of Hell is noise”); feeling lonely makes her think of Camus (“the weight of days is dreadful”); Beiruti garbage collectors are so many Sisyphuses.

We get it: this lady has read a lot of books. But in fact Aaliya is less a devotee of literature than a gourmand. She “salivates” over the “beautiful sentences” of Claudio Magris; Marguerite Yourcenar’s versions of Cavafy are “like champagne.” (Constance Garnett’s translations of Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, are “milky tea.”)

Reading a good book for the first time is “as sumptuous as the first sip of orange juice that breaks the fast in Ramadan.” And it isn’t just literature: “When I first heard Wagner, Messiaen, or Ligeti, the noise was unbearable, but like a child with her first sip of wine, I recognized something that I could love with practice.”

Most of the time, however, Aaliya’s devotion to literature is taken seriously. Her passion for translation is the prime source of the novel’s claim on its readers’ sympathies. The loneliness of this passion—and therefore the strength of our sympathies—is heightened by the idea, which Alameddine insists on, that Aaliya is pursuing her vocation in a cultural desert.

“I understood from the beginning that what I do isn’t publishable. There’s never been a market for it, and I doubt there ever will be.” In the same spirit, when Aaliya steals some titles from the bookstore where she works, she is doing a public service:

Had I not ordered some of these books, they would never have landed on Lebanese soil. For crying out loud, do you think anyone else in Lebanon has a copy of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood? And I am picking just one book off the top of my head. Lampedusa’s The Leopard? I don’t think anyone else in this country has a book by Novalis.

In passages like this, Aaliya becomes a more problematic narrator than Alameddine seems to intend. She is soliciting our sympathies—the sympathies of non-Lebanese readers, who are clearly the novel’s intended audience—by flattering our prejudices. For in reality, Beirut is no literary desert.

Beirut is the publishing hub of the Middle East and has been for a long time. Bookishness is central to Lebanon’s self-conception, as the response to the recent burning of a bookstore in Tripoli attests. Nor is it hostile to literary translation. To the contrary. In the late Fifties and Sixties, when Aaliya would have been in her mid-twenties, Beirut was home to the best literary magazines in Arabic, which were full of translated fiction and verse.

Perhaps the most influential of these journals was Shi‘r ((She3er, Poetry), a modernist quarterly modeled on Harriet Monroe’s little magazine of the same name. Between 1957 and 1964, Shi‘r published translations of Walt Whitman, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Paul Valéry, Saint-John Perse, Antonin Artaud, Henri Michaux, Yves Bonnefoy, Federico García Lorca, Octavio Paz, Salvatore Quasimodo, Rainer Maria Rilke, and many others. The magazine’s chief critic was Khalida Said, wife of the Syrio-Lebanese poet Adonis.

Other journals during the same period translated leftist intellectuals such as Sartre, Nâzım Hikmet, Paul Éluard, Pablo Neruda, and Louis Aragon. Somebody may even have had a copy of Lampedusa.

Is it conceivable Aaliya would have no knowledge of this history? She tells us she started translating at the age of twenty-two, in 1959, just as the Beiruti rage for translation was in full swing. Most literary magazines were published in Hamra, Aaliya’s own West Beirut neighborhood.

And they were published by her kind of people—cosmopolitan misfits, some of whom, like the poets and critics of Shi‘r, argued for a version of artistic autonomy that mirrors Aaliya’s own. Maybe it is conceivable she would know nothing of all this; maybe Aaliya is simply a recluse whose greatest pleasure happens to come from translating literary fiction. Maybe, but then her rhetorical question about Nightwood sounds less like a cry of anguish than ignorant snobbery. And the thirty-seven moldering manuscripts, whose fate turns out to be central to the plot, seem less like a rare and precious archive than a monumental quirk.

Alameddine’s own relation to the Lebanese literary history is similarly fraught. He belongs, and yet he does not want to. Alameddine’s recurring focus on the experience of emigration, the opportunities of self-creation offered by leaving home, his interest in questions of language and identity, and his mixing of Arab and European forms—all this places him squarely within the Levantine tradition of mahjar literature (mahjar is Arabic for “the place of emigration”).

This is a tradition that begins in the late 19th century and includes contemporary writers such as the novelist Rawi Hage and the playwright Wajdi Mouawad. The best-known and by far the best-selling member of this group is Gibran, though in the United States he tends to be viewed as a New Age parabolist of indeterminate origin rather than as a specifically Arab writer.

Alameddine, of course, wants nothing to do with this inheritance—for him, Gibran is “the most overrated writer in history”—and his way of telling stories stages its own kind of revolt.

Each of Alameddine’s first three novels upsets realist conventions in its own way.

Koolaids flits back and forth between wartime Beirut and San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s; it is a montage of voices and stories, a form Alameddine credits to Jean Said Makdisi’s memoir, Beirut Fragments (1990), though Elias Khoury’s pioneering novel of the civil war, The Little Mountain (1977), is probably the ultimate source for this technique.

Alameddine’s second novel, I, the Devine (2001), is narrated by a Beiruti Druze woman who struggles to maintain stable relationships after emigrating to the US; it is told in the form of first chapters—the narrator keeps trying and failing and trying again to write her memoir.

In The Hakawati, (2008), Alameddine borrows from the fabulist Arabic oral tradition to construct an interlocking series of tales framed by the story of a Lebanese man who returns from Los Angeles to keep vigil at his father’s deathbed.

One motive for this style of storytelling may be the fractured state of Lebanon, whose social landscape often seems to lack any common ground. “What if I told you that life has no unity?” says a character in Koolaids. “It is a series of nonlinear vignettes leading nowhere.” But it is also a way to resist, without entirely foregoing, the realist commonplaces of class, religion, and locality. Alameddine doesn’t want his characters to be defined by their sectarian identities any more than they do. It is this tussle between the claims of home and the attractions of flight that run through his fiction.

This is nicely suggested in a vignette from Koolaids. One of the book’s protagonists is a Lebanese abstract painter living in San Francisco (Alameddine was a successful painter before he turned to writing). A countryman is shown one of the canvases, which consists of irregular yellow rectangles, and becomes puzzled when a salesmen calls it abstract art. “But they are the sides of our houses,” the Lebanese man says. “That’s how the stones look back home. Exactly that yellow color.” The painter wants to escape into the purity of form but his content remains stubbornly local. Likewise, in I, the Divine the expatriate narrator speaks for many characters when she complains to a friend,

Here I am, the black sheep of the family, yet I’m still part of it. I tried separating from the family all my life, only to find out it’s not possible, not in my family. So I become the black sheep without any of the advantages of being one.

You can never go home, but you can’t entirely leave it, either.

An Unnecessary Woman marks a departure from the style and themes of this earlier work.

The story is told from a single point of view and, aside from a few flashbacks, it proceeds in straightforward fashion. And yet Aaliya is no more at ease in in Beirut than the characters who actually leave. This may reflect a common feeling among Beirutis that the city rebuilt after the civil war is a bewilderingly different place from the pre-war version. But it also comes from Aaliya’s sense that Lebanon is a deeply parochial country, which she can only escape by reading Sebald and Saramago. “Literature is my sandbox,” Aaliya explains early in the novel. “In it I play, build my forts and castles, spend glorious time. It is the world outside that box that gives me trouble.”

The most convincing passages in Alameddine’s novels, however, are not his paeans to literature but those moments when he represents his characters at their worst.

Koolaids includes a playlet featuring two upper-class Lebanese women meeting in a café in Paris to gossip about their friends: “The Ballan girl is incredibly ugly. I can’t imagine what [her husband] saw in her.” “As ugly as the Bandoura girl?” “No, my dear, that one is really ugly. This one is close, though.” “That one was so ugly. I couldn’t believe she found a husband.” “Money, dear, money. Daddy has money.” This goes on for ten pages; the whole thing is wicked and pitch-perfect.

Another memorable episode occurs forty pages into An Unnecessary Woman. Aaliya tells the story of Ahmad, a bookish young Palestinian who once helped her at the store and sought her reading recommendations. As soon as the war starts, he joins a militia and quickly rises through the ranks. Rumors suggest he has become an expert torturer. Now Aaliya wants him to get her a gun. Her apartment was burgled—the city is slipping into anarchy—and she needs it for self-defense. She meets Ahmad at his well-appointed apartment and finds a very different man from the one who helped her stock the shelves:

“Slacks pressed and tailored, the white shirt fitted and expensive, the face smiling and clean-shaven.” Aaliya, on the other hand, hasn’t showered in many days—running water has become a luxury—and wears a pink tracksuit with sequined swirls. Ahmad says he will give her a gun (and a hot shower) in return for sex. She agrees.

During intercourse, on her hands and knees, Aaliya feels Ahmad’s fingers squeezing spots on her lower back and suddenly realizes that he is removing her blackheads. He apologizes, “It had been unconscious. He couldn’t see a blackhead on his own skin without removing it and didn’t realize he was doing the same with me. I asked him not to stop.” Here is moral capitulation, erotic pleasure, vanity, and surprising tenderness—fiction that matches the complexity of history. All the rest is literature.

Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman is published by Grove Press.

Disobedience is man’s original virtue…”

In “The soul of man under socialism”, Oscar Wild wrote:

“Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, and through rebellion…”

In “On the concept of history”, Walter Benjamin wrote:

“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism…”

James Fenton in “Blood and Lead”

“Listen to what they did.

Don’t listen to what they said.

What was written in blood

Has been set up in lead”

In “The recollection of Alexis de Tocqueville 1896

In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the End

W.H Auden in “Epitaph on a Tyrant

“Perfection, of a kind, is what he was after,

And the poetry he invented was easy to understand

He knew human folly like the back of his hand,

And was greatly interested in armies and fleets.

When he laughed, respected senators burst with laughter,

And when he cried, the little children died in the streets.”

In “Sonnets from China II”, Auden wrote: “They wept and quarreled: Freedom was so wild”

Mustafa Abdel Jalil (Libya interim president) said in September 2011:

“I hope the revolution will not stumble by retribution, taking matters into your hands and oppression…”

Late Vaclav Havel (President of Austria) said:

“Decent people cannot sit back and watch systematic, state-directed massacres. Decent people cannot fail to come to the rescue when within their power…”

Joseph Joubert wrote: “Love and Fear. Everything the father of a family says must inspire one or the other”

Joseph Stalin (Absolute dictator of the Soviet Union) said:

Death is the solution to all problems. No man, no problem

Omar Mukhtar (Libya resistance fighter leader to Italian occupation during Mussolini) said:

“We win or we die.” Finally, he surrendered and was taken to Rome in chains

Muammar Qadhafi wrote in his “Green Book”:

“There are inevitable cycles of social history:

1. The Yellow Race’s dominion of the world in Asia

2. The White Race’s attempt at colonizing extensive areas in all continents

3. Now it is the turn of the Black race to prevail in the world…”

One of the first steps to disobedience is to wean yourself out of rituals and ceremonies. Start to question the rationale and historical meaning and purposes of the rituals you are submitting to.

Civil disobedience is not an easy resolution to get engaged in: Law and Order institutions have to be revisited and reflected upon their validity in the pursuit of happiness, freedom of expression, human rights, and availability of opportunities to all regardless of race, genders, religious belief, and financial status.

Gandhi has developed the guidelines for non-cooperative movements against governments that broke their oaths and pledges to serving the people and are exercising cruelty, exploitation and oppression.

The program of non-cooperation is of 4 steps, each step is meant to reach a higher level of disobedience to the authority.

The first responsibility is to exposing, precisely, the project to the population at large through meetings and focused communication.

The next step is to convince the public servants to voluntarily abandon their titled positions and charges with the government and encouraging the lawyers and judges to stop serving the government.  No pressures should be exercised on the functionaries, especially if the movement is unable to provide for the bread winners. The private employees are excluded from the requirements of abandoning their services.

The third step would ask the army and security officers and soldiers to retreat from their duties.

The last step would amount to refusing paying taxes to the government.

In order to shorten the period of resistance with a successful outcome, the organization of the non-cooperative movement should cater to the weakest members in social status or economic needs.  The members of the movement should:

1.  stop taking loans from government funds;

2. conflicts among the members must be resolved through private arbitrage because lawyers should suspend the exercise of their official profession toward the government.

3. The members should start boycotting public schools; (in this request, I would include boycotting private schools so that no discrimination in economic status should be established).

4. The members should not attend any government reunions and meetings and ceremonies; they should refuse accepting any civil or military post.

5. In case of being under occupation, the members should rely solely on local and national products and manufactures “swadeshi” and thus,boycotting imported consumer’s products from the colonial powers.

For more details on non-violent-resistance-guidelines:

Note 1: Quotes taken from “Sandstorm (El Ghibli): Libya in the time of revolution” by Lindsey Hitsum

Note 2: Listen to Matt Damon on “Civil obedience is the problem” Howard Zinn

You Think You Know Someone, and Then He Gets on a Stage and Blows Your Mind




January 2023

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