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Shadowboxing: A Column

by Askold Melnyczuk


1.

The Opera House in Lviv (aka Lemberg, aka Lvov) is modeled after the theater in Vienna. I was told it’s the third largest baroque performance hall in Europe, but I don’t believe it. Ukrainians are as prone to hyperbole as Anglo-Saxons are to understatement.

It was on the stage of the theater that last September I recited a poem written years before which contains a reference to this thousand-year-old town where both my grandfather and mother attended the university. Nearing the end of it, I felt my anxiety mount. In the published version, the last lines read: “I come from a country / which no longer exists. . . .” Suddenly the stanza seemed ridiculous, fabulously mortal. I was inside that very country. It certainly did exist. The wooden planks of the stage were solid, the audience silent but palpable. From what I’d seen over two weeks of travel, from Peremyshl to Odessa to Kiev, Ukraine was more awake than it had been in decades, maybe centuries.

Life, I reasoned, takes precedent over art, and certainly over words ephemeral as these. So I improvised. “I come from a country / which no longer exists” became “I come from a country / which refuses to die.” Unfortunately, I can’t say how the change was received. I don’t believe more than a handful of the five hundred or so people in the audience understood English.

~

I’d hoped to dedicate this entire afterward to [AGNI 33] to the Ukrainian Poetry Conference which took place last September in Kiev and Lviv. I wanted to tell American readers about the BU-BA-BU poets: Oleksander (Sashko) Irvanetz, Yuri Andruchovitch, Viktor Neboraka, and their affiliate Petro Midyanka. When these young neo-pataphysicians (they’re all in their late twenties and early thirties) staged a Sunday morning event at this same Opera House, crowds began gathering at six a.m. The place filled quickly and many were turned away. Individually they are serious, gifted, supple writers.

I also wanted to say something about the heady poetry of Oxana Zabuzhko, who teaches philosophy at Kiev University; as well as about the tactile and tactless (in the best sense) love poems of Antonina Tsvyd.

I wanted to praise the energies of the gregarious, combustible secretary of the Writer’s Union, Pavlo Movchan; to register the brooding mandarin presence of Ivan Drach, the poet who heads the country’s leading independence movement, Rukh, and who may have had one of the strangest careers of any European literary figure in the twentieth century.

I would have liked to give you a sense of the courageous folk singer and member of parliament Andrij Panchishin; and to recount some of the insights into the spiritual life of the country offered by his wife, Natalia.

For now this roll call must suffice. “Recent events” demand response.

 

2.

Over the last months I often wished AGNI appeared weekly. In the many scrapped versions of this postscript I tried summarizing my response to the dreadful war. I failed, repeatedly, in part because words were overshadowed by the nightly televised screams of green lights leveling Iraq. And partly because this sort of periodical can’t, and needn’t, duplicate the efforts of the daily press. Moreover, “recent events” do not have endings cleanly marked. They consistently break the boundaries of yesterday into what happened an hour ago, what is happening now, what will happen next. This is how history grows. Each day we learn a little more. The war may have metastasized; it may have gone into remission. But it has not gone away.

It really is “our” war—we citizens of the United States own it. We bought it—lock, stock, and tank barrel—from George Bush. The war is not the only thing that’s ours. “The most radical and only secure form of possession,” Hannah Arendt observed in Imperialism, “is destruction.” And the current government has finally and unequivocally taken over another ancient civilization—if that sober, serious word has any meaning this late in the century. By destroying Iraq, Bush has permanently annexed that country. It belongs to us.

The question is: what will we do with it now?

~

My students complained often over the last months that I was critical of Bush’s policies without offering constructive alternatives. They said the whole problem with the left was that it had no solutions to anything. I tried pointing out that before counseling might begin it’s necessary first to disarm the assailant, to get him to take the knife from his victim’s throat. They did not agree.

They also did not see sanctions as a constructive alternative to war.

Now that the war is over, we who opposed it need to ask what it is we want.

I have an idea. It’s simple, it’s constructive, it’s reasonable.

I think.

 

3.

. . . but let me backtrack. I need to rehearse a few first principles.

I’m never sure whether people who talk about the citizen’s responsibility to the state mean to imply that they would accept any evil promoted by that fluid entity, or whether they are pragmatists who will tolerate a certain amount of evil committed by the state, when the evil is committed for their benefit. Many policy critics have pointed out that we support repressive regimes almost as a matter of course: in Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, Indonesia and so on. Militarists reply that fussiness over human rights issues has no place in the business of running an empire. Power requires hard choices. Sometimes you gotta kill; sometimes you gotta destabilize a region. You do this in order to control a foreign country’s natural resources. This benefits your citizens. It’s why you were hired in the first place.

Maybe.

Most ardent supporters of the current government resent policy critics. They see criticism as motivated by some self-destructive streak running through the naysayers. Why attack something that will only improve your lot? A military victory for the United States is a victory for all its citizens. All of them financed it; they will all share in the booty. Even those earning minimum wage; even the thirty million living at or below the poverty level. Not to mention those more directly involved in the business of waging war.

Here, however, policy critics and the present arbiters of policy really do differ. To policy critics, any unbalanced power relationship involves both parties in a complicated dance where first one partner leads, then the other. In a more balanced affair, we may reach equilibrium. Policy critics seem to me pragmatists of the best sort. They know it pays to be moral. This may at times make them sound a little stuffy or a little righteous. But so what? Let them have their pride of purpose, these people who believe little good grows from big evil. What, after all, are they asking for except that we take responsibility for the consequences of our actions? Before we can do that, we should at least know what those consequences may be.

4. Reading Matters

Never before have I been as aware of the insights hidden in an odd nugget of Ukrainian folk wisdom: “You are what you read.” The war heightened to nearly unbearable levels of frustrations arising when you find yourself cut off from your neighbors because of the magazines to which you subscribe. For updates on daily events I relied on The Boston Globe, The New York Times, the networks, and National Public Radio. I supplemented this with a glance at the weeklies. But most readers saw quickly what the Reporters’ Committee on the Freedom of the Press announced later: that information about what was really happening in Iraq was heavily censored. In fact, coverage of this war was more severely censored than was reporting on Vietnam, Korea, or the two world wars. This made alternative media sources endlessly valuable. I don’t know where I would have been without the helpful articles in Z magazine, for instance. It’s worth naming the other periodicals I found so helpful: The Nation, Harper’s, The Newsletter of the Christic Institute, and Extra proved fountains of useful information.

In the category of useless information belong statistics about different weapons systems. There is no way for the average citizen to make use of “factoids” about the length and range of missile X. Nobody cares what I think about this. Indeed, I hardly know why I am being given this information, unless the whole show is, as has been suggested, a huge weapons fair.

On the other hand, in the category of useful, relevant, even necessary information, falls whatever news might help a citizen decide what course of action his government should pursue. For example, it seems much more to the point for a citizen to know, not the range of a particular missile, but what happens when one of them explodes in the vicinity of human being.

If I were to see how a man or a woman or a child (but best to get all three) responds when a Patriot falls nearby, then I might be equipped to pass judgment on how and where I want that piece of equipment used. I would not buy a car on the basis of specs alone. I would want to see it in action, would need to see it doing what it was designed to do. Ideally, of course, I would want to experience as much of it as I could first hand.

I missed this sort of reporting on network television.

5.

A note in a March issue of The Ukrainian Weekly announced that a television show in Ukraine, called Three Colors, was cancelled for being too critical of Gorbachev. The word censorship came to mind. The communists are reverting to their old ways, I thought. And then it dawned on me that we in the United States do not have a single program on network television which consistently presents oppositional views to majority policies.

Here, then, is my creative and constructive suggestion about what I think might be done to improve our media. If implemented, it would help make all of us more thoughtful citizens.

I propose that one—or better, all three—of the networks devote one hour of television every night to oppositional nightly news. I would like to see a program which nightly, and with no apologies, provided a critique of the policies of the government in power.

An audience exists for such a show, I’m sure of it. Even if the polls were right and eighty percent of the population supported the President, that leaves forty-eight million outside the fold. Half tuned in at any given time—and my guess is that people are so starved for genuine information you couldn’t keep them away with reruns of Star Trek—that would leave an audience of twenty-four million. Surely sponsors appreciative of such numbers could be found. Ad men could point out to potential viewers how much they would save on magazine subscriptions alone. Though I suspect some might want printed confirmation.

I am not saying I would tune in every night. But I believe I would sleep better, and rent videos with a clearer conscience, if I knew that at any moment I could break from my film noir to an image—perhaps even live, and certainly in color—of a child, or a woman, or if no one else were available then, hang it all, a full grown man, burning, maybe, like an oil well, a human torch lighting up the night in a place that once seemed far away.

A.M.
Cambridge
April 1, 1991

 


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