The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the "state of emergency" in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are "still" possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge—unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.
—Benjamin, On the Concept of History (1940)†
On October 16, 1996, Carolyn Forché gave a reading at my alma mater. By then I was two months gone, living in New York, but a certain friend secured a cassette recording for me and an autographed copy of Forché's indispensable The Angel of History. Over time, and repeated listenings, I adopted as my own an interstitial moment in the reading, appropriated even its diction and syntax, and sowed it in my mind like a land mine. And over the years, I would dig it out and gently unwrap it on the bar where I was drinking, say, and discussing the issues of the day with a friend.
Here is Forché's set-up:
Wisława Szymborska just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. She's 73 years old. She's one of the few women to win it. It's very nice that she won it. It would be nice if all of us could learn how to say her name, but it's hard, you know. She's in here; I'm very proud to say that Wisława Szymborska is in Against Forgetting. Because the Communists thought that her writing was too obscure – and morbid, they said – so they banned her. And I will read you a poem of hers so you can judge for yourself if you think that it's too obscure.
Here is her charge –
which I recall with unreal lucidity bursting in my brain as Amerika responded to 9/11
and as media endlessly circled the idea of A Return To Normalcy
(and as I debated whether "normalcy" was even a word),
and which flashed up again this summer while discussing the US presidential election with friends in Berlin,
and which flits up in the Now, again, in the wake of 11/9:
We like to think that if we are alive someday in a time of great moral crisis, that we would hide people, that we would be in the resistance, that we would make sure that people weren't killed, that we would be...that we would act morally and in conscience. We also suppose in our imaginations that we would survive. We always think that we would be one of the ones to make it through.
So we like to think, except, if we cannot contemplate the negative, too, then it's not thinking. "Wisława Szymborska has something to say about that," Forché continues, "and about the coincidence and happenstance and real fate of that. And this is her poem called 'Any Case'" (and this is the translation, by Grazyna Drabik and Sharon Olds, that Forché included in Against Forgetting and read that night, in 1996).
I should really get around to digitizing that Forché reading. Before night falls.
† Harry Zohn's translation (from Illuminations), with which we might quibble, but not today. Here is the original from the Gesammelte Schriften:
Die Tradition der Unterdrückten belehrt uns darüber, daß der ›Ausnahmezustand‹, in dem wir leben, die Regel ist. Wir müssen zu einem Begriff der Geschichte kommen, der dem entspricht. Dann wird uns als unsere Aufgabe die Herbeiführung des wirklichen Ausnahmezustands vor Augen stehen; und dadurch wird unsere Position im Kampf gegen den Faschismus sich verbessern. Dessen Chance besteht nicht zuletzt darin, daß die Gegner ihm im Namen des Fortschritts als einer historischen Norm begegnen. – Das Staunen darüber, daß die Dinge, die wir erleben, im zwanzigsten Jahrhundert ›noch‹ möglich sind, ist kein philosophisches. Es steht nicht am Anfang einer Erkenntnis, es sei denn der, daß die Vorstellung von Geschichte, aus der es stammt, nicht zu halten ist.