Wednesday, June 29, 2011



What is the barbarism of poetry? Adorno’s declaration that poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric is often taken as both an indictment and a prohibition, although in the context of his philosophical work, it is meant as neither. Here, the riddle of the statement lies in his claim that the barbarism of writing poetry has “corroded our knowledge” of why it has become impossible to write poetry. In a recent essay on contemporary post-catastrophe Arabic poetry, Nouri Gana finds that the impossibility of writing after what he calls the “proximate historical corollary” of Auschwitz, the occupation of Palestine (the Nakba, or catastrophe of 1948), is one of the conditions for writing poetry after it has been declared barbaric. In this essay, I turn to one of the first writers of Arabic free verse, the Iraqi poet Nazik al-Malaika, to consider how poetry registers the experience of barbarism through its appeal to the impossibility of its expression. I argue that in deliberation over the condition of its impossibility, poetry attempts to answer the metaphysical and increasingly ethical questions that Adorno poses for the “resurrected cultures” of society after catastrophe. Poetry recasts the ethical question of good and evil as the fragile relation between meaning and incoherence. In al-Malaika’s poem, “Five Hymns to Pain” (1949), there is no ethical imperative to “remember,” or to retain the barbaric incoherency of suffering, and neither is there an attempt to find meaning in the remains. Rather, pain is sequestered: it is given “a little corner” in the heart; it partitions, raising walls “between our longing and the moon”; and is sheltered “among the ribs of our joyful songs.” The poetry of barbarism does not work to remember, to account for, or to memorialize, it works to forget: “We shall forget pain, / we shall forget it, / having nurtured it with satisfaction.” Pain is material; figured as an object more than a subjective experience, al-Malaika’s poetry divorces the continuity between pain and barbarism that has been one of the (to my mind false) legacies of Adorno’s philosophical writing on poetry. I argue that in emphasizing this separation of pain and barbarism, al-Malaika realigns barbarism and culture to the extent that Adorno also did when he wrote, just before writing about the barbarism of poetry, that we are at “the final stage” of the dialectic of culture and barbarism.” Such a final stage is conveyed in the melancholic sentiment of al-Malaika’s poetry, which, affectively very different from Adorno’s philosophical-poetic tone, may also help us appraise the permutations of this dialectic and its various points of origin. In this paper, I hope to explore how consideration of al-Malaika’s poetry can help to revise our understanding of Adorno’s philosophical work, especially as it pertains to poetry and lyric theory, but also and perhaps more importantly insofar as it contributes to philosophical discussions of ethics in the twentieth century.

3 comments:

RT said...

It's interesting that forgetting pain would be figured as the consequence of "having nurtured" it. A lot seems to be whatever step is elided here (the how of this consequence). Having nurtured it, it grows up and becomes what? Or having nurtured it, we can allow ourselves after to walk away from it? It sounds like it's still "there" after we forget it...

RT said...

seems to be IN whatever

etc said...

yes, i think so. it is a moment perhaps in the movement to overcome the contradiction between not being able to bear and not being able to bear to leave, which Kant talks about when talking about the transformation between pathology and morality. i keep thinking of things that overcome a primary dependence on a subject and assert their own independence, or things that are first a part of the subject but then become something more, in their own terms. interestingly, it kind of mimics that structure of dependency/independency in Kleins description of manic-depression. and all of my imagined figures reflect this association: a rebellious teenager, rebellion more generally, a disease, discontent. Maybe, perhaps importantly, the trauma is the trauma of eros?