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ON ART AND WAR AND TERROR

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By Alex Danchev

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The Montréal Review, September 2011

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"On Art and War and Terror" by Alex Danchev (Edinburgh University Press, 2011)  

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"On Art and War and Terror collects Alex Danchev's beautifully lucid and thoughtful essays on the most difficult issues of our age and, in particular, the nature of humanity in times of conflict."

- Times Higher Education

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'Poetry makes nothing happen,' said the poet W. H. Auden. How wrong he was.

My essays, On Art and War and Terror, now available in paperback, are dedicated to the proposition that art matters, ethically and politically, emotionally and intellectually - that poetry makes something happen after all. Not only does it make us feel, or feel differently, it makes us think, and think again. We go beyond ourselves, as a philosopher said, by penetrating deeper into the work.

The credo and manifesto of the book is the affirmation of another poet, Seamus Heaney, that 'the imaginative transformation of human life is the means by which we can most truly grasp and comprehend it.' Whatever is given, he writes in his own idiom, 'can always be reimagined, however four-square/ Plank-thick, hull-stupid and out of its time/ It happens to be.' The words come from his ruminations on what he calls the redress of poetry: the notion that poetry - art - can function as a kind of moral spirit level, an agent of equilibration, 'an upright, resistant, and self-bracing entity within the general flux and flex'.

That is an inspiring notion. Walt Whitman proclaimed something similar:

Of these States the poet is the equable man,

Not in him but off from him things are grotesque, eccentric, fail

of their full returns,

Nothing out of its place is good, nothing in its place is bad,

He bestows on every object or quality its fit proportion, neither

more nor less,

He is the arbiter of the diverse, he is the key,

He is the equalizer of his age and land,

He supplies what wants supplying, he checks what wants checking,

...

For the great Idea, the idea of perfect and free individuals,

For that, the bard walks in advance, leader of leaders,

The attitude of him cheers up slaves and horrifies foreign despots.

The essays take seriously the idea of the artist as moralist - an unfashionable idea - or moral witness, in Avishai Margalit's phrase, with a moral purpose and a sober hope. Hope for what? Hope that there is, or will be, an audience of sentient spectators, viewers, readers, absorbed in the work: a community, a moral community, for who it stands up and who will stand up for it. Art is the highest form of hope, as the painter Gerhard Richter has finely said.

The essays also take seriously Auden's cautionary words: 'The primary function of poetry, as of all the arts, is to makes us more aware of ourselves and the world around us. I do not know if such awareness makes us more moral or more efficient: I hope not. I think it makes us more human, and I am quite certain it makes us more difficult to deceive, which is why, perhaps, all totalitarian theories of the state ... have deeply mistrusted the arts. They notice and say too much, and the neighbours start talking.'

Armed with art, in other words, we are more alert and less deceived. My essays seek to investigate these claims. They put the imagination to work in the service of historical, political and ethical inquiry. Employing its second sight, they piggy-back on its moral benefits. 'The nobility of poetry,' says Wallace Stevens, 'is a violence from within that protects us from a violence from without.' This is a book about violence of both kinds. It traffics in war poetry, war photography, war films, war stories, war diaries and the like, but also in war itself: in blood - 'blood like a carwash', as Christopher Logue's Homer has it - and therefore in political legitimacy, moral authority, civility, depravity, honour and conscience; not to speak of strange things such as active passivity and senseless kindness. The violence within is illuminating. The violence without is unrelenting. We need all the protection we can get.

The poets are not the only champions of the imagination. 'In my utopia,' proposed the philosopher Richard Rorty, 'human solidarity would be seen not as a fact to be recognized by clearing away "prejudice" or burrowing down to previously hidden depths but, rather, as a goal to be achieved. It is to be achieved not by inquiry but by imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as a fellow sufferers.' For Rorty, this was a matter of describing in detail what strange people are like, and of 'redescribing' what we ourselves are like - what we are capable of. The essays in On Art and War and Terror offer themselves as miniature models of description and redescription. They prize what Henry James called the soreness of confusion. They excoriate binary thinking: us and them, black and white, good and evil, civilization and barbarism. They are much concerned with the bloody consequences of categorical certainty, lexical promiscuity, political rapacity and personal vanity - the kind that fuses ignorance and arrogance, self-regard and self-deception. With Geoffrey Hill, 'I have learned one thing: not to look down/ so much upon the damned.'

They treat, for example, Gerhard Richter's cycle of paintings on the life and death of the Baader-Meinhof group, 18 October 1977; the face in war photography and the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas; Vasily Grossman's great novel, Life and Fate, a kind of Second World War and Peace; the authenticity of paintings and politicians alike; Kafka and Abu Ghraib; the films of the 'war on terror', in particular Errol Morris's remarkable documentary, Standard Operating Procedure; the secret life of the military diarist; and the uses of barbarians.

'One foot in scholarship, the other in magic arts,' reflects Marguerite Yourcenar, 'or, more accurately and without metaphor, absorption in that sympathetic magic which operates when one transports oneself, in thought, into another's body and soul.' Several of the essays have a biographical thrust. They embrace body and soul. In similar terms, Theodor Adorno wrote severely to his friend and comrade Walter Benjamin that his exposé of Baudelaire (the miniature model of the fabled Arcades Project) served to transport into 'a realm where history and magic oscillate'. Coming from Adorno, however, this was not a compliment. It was a reproof of ideological and methodological shortcomings. 'If one wanted to put it rather drastically,' he continued, 'one could say that your study is located at the crossroads of magic and positivism. This spot is bewitched. Only theory could break this spell - your own resolute and salutarily speculative theory.' As between sympathetic magic and speculative theory, I side with Marguerite Yourcenar. These essays are not a spelling out, but an inviting in.

Poetry outbids prescription. 'We work in the dark,' wrote Henry James, 'we do what we can - we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.'

Have a care, gentle reader. Beware the madness of art. Beware the hospitality of war.

In the hospitality of war

We left them their dead as a gift

To remember us by.

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Alex Danchev is professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham and author or editor of fifteen books, including Georges Braque: A Life and The Iraq War and Democratic Politics.

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