By Salleh Ben Joned
New Straits Times, p.34
17 August 1994.
The Russian-American poet and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky said it pithily and incontestably: “The literal tragedy is in Bosnia. But the ethical tragedy is right here.” “Here” is the United States of America, where I am writing this. Why “the ethical tragedy”?
Because the world’s most powerful nation, proud and shrill about its commitment to freedom and democracy, could self-righteously talk about “naked aggression”, “genocide,” etc, etc — and do nothing to stop it. Because the United States has done nothing, “the principles on which this country was founded,” said Brodsky, “is a lie.”
The betraying of that principle took a pathetic Clintonish turn when at last month’s G-7 Summit, the President conveniently forgot his tough talk about genocide of only a few months earlier, and told the warring parties to be reasonable and accept the latest peace-and-partition plan of the international mediators. “Accept it or …”; the ultimatum in effect legitimising the Serbs’ act of “ethnic cleansing.”
Now that the insatiable Serbs, who know that the United States has neither the will nor the conviction to carry out its threats, have rejected the plan, we will no doubt soon hear Clinton tell the State Department people to be careful about using a certain word in connection with Bosnia, as he had earlier told them to be careful about using that same word in connection with Rwanda. What word? Genocide, of course.
There is an element of absurdist comedy in the waffly rhetoric of Clinton. I can imagine how the Sarajevo Surrealist Hit Parade, the most popular comedy troupe in the former Yugoslavia (sample: “Today our street reporter has joined a SWAT team seeking blood donors”), would report this latest turn in Clinton’s policy on Bosnia in its regular mock radio news broadcast:
“The latest edition of the American bestseller Clintoncrap (alternative title: Washingtonwaffle) has just been published. The word ‘genocide’…” Thank God for the Sarajevan sense of humour. The city’s tradition of satirical wit, very Eastern European in the flavour of its irony, has remained intact; a not insignificant aid for the survival of Sarajevans’ sanity.
Last year a writers and artists collective, FAMA, brought out a beautifully designed book called Sarajevo: Survival Guide. A dead-pan parody of Michelin guide books, the publication is aimed at visiting moral tourists to the ruined city. Sarajevo is a great city for shopping, it says: try one of its shopping delights — the daily bread ration (233 grammes per person).
Without such hardened humour, wouldn’t you go mad from the unbearable knowledge that the whole world knows about the ethnic mass murders going on around you, makes a lot of threatening noise about it, but does nothing to help?
The really terrible thing about what has been happening in Bosnia (or Rwanda) is not that it happens, because genocides have happened before. No, what’s really terrible about it is that it’s happening in full knowledge of the so-called civilised world.
Brodsky, in that same statement I quoted, in fact made this very point. “There were no camera crews in Auschwitz: that was our excuse during World War Two.” Now, with instant coverage of genocide by the likes of CNN, “we’ve been anaesthetised, as if the murder is part of television.”
Susan Sontag, writer and film-maker, echoed Brodsky when she said: “Until the Bosnian genocide, one might have thought that if the story (of genocides such as Auschwitz) could be gotten out, the world would do something. The coverage of genocide in Bosnia has ended that illusion.”
Illusions. Illusions. That one Sontag was talking about, the illusion that in matters of genocide knowledge is the spring of humane action — that, and a few others. Bosnia has shattered more than one illusion.
But there is one ‘illusion’ that even Bosnia seems unable to destroy: the ‘illusion’ that what morally concerned writers and intellectuals say about world politics could make a difference to public opinion or even government policy. This ‘illusion,’ however, is of a positive kind: it is necessary to the moral life of a nation.
Writers and intellectuals have been called the conscience of a nation, and though that conscience can be and has quote often been a mere conduit of fashionable commitments or even a tool of state ideologies (nation or foreign), the keeping of it alive in the face of blatant barbarism anywhere in the world is vital for the moral health of that nation’s literature and thought, and hence that of the nation itself.
Although the Bosnian war, the bloodiest in Europe since the Second World War, hasn’t quite become “another Spain” as some writers claim (the Spanish Civil War of the Thirties was the last Great Cause for Western writers), it has inspired passionate sympathy in a number of well-known American and European writers and intellectuals. And some of the major newspapers and intellectual journals have been consistently vocal in their sympathy for Bosnia and criticism of the lukewarm policy of the Western powers.
To give one striking example, the Serbian slaughter of civilians in the Sarajevo market in February provoked The New Republic, a weekly journal with liberal tendencies, to dramatise in an unusual way its trenchant criticism of Clinton’s evasive and gutless policy on Bosnia. The criticism, expressed in the editorial for its Feb 28 issue, was printed in big white type over black on its cover and continued in the inside for three long pages.
A number of well-known writers and intellectuals (Joseph Brodsky and Susan Sontag being among the most notable) have been urging United States to intervene in Bosnia. Many of these writers were anti-intervention during the Vietnam War. (Not all who are against the Serbian aggression, however, are for American intervention; notable among these anti-interventionists are Alexander Cockburn and Noam Chomsky, the latter one of the staunchest critics of American intervention in Vietnam).
In Europe, French intellectuals, noted for their tradition of political commitment and their influence on French public opinion, have been very vocal about Bosnia. This was noticeably so after a period of relative disengagement in the wake of the ending of the Cold War.
In the run-up to the European Parliamentary election in May, French intellectuals, led by the former Marxist ‘new philosopher’ Bernard-Henri Levy, lifted Bosnia to the top of the French political agenda. A group of 35 intellectuals ran on a pro-Bosnia ticket in the election, demanding the lifting of the arms embargo on Bosnia and its preservation as a multi-ethnic state in any final peace agreement. Their campaign slogan was “Europe Begins in Sarajevo.”
Apart from articulating the nation’s conscience, and indulging in semi-quixotic electoral adventures, what else can writers do? Not much really, other than individual acts of human solidarity — like ambulance driving or even fighting on the side of justice and democracy, as some writers did in the Spanish Civil War.
Or a writers’ organisation could do something modest but concrete such as helping, materially and spiritually, their beleaguered fellow writers in the country of the genocide. Like what PEN American Centre did in November last year when it sponsored a benefit evening for Bosnian writers in New York. Both Sontag and Brodsky spoke and read at the benefit. Other well-known writers who also did their bit included playwright Arthur Miller and another Nobel laureate, poet Derek Walcott.
The special guest of that evening was the noted Bosniak journalist Zlatko Dizdarevic, editor of Sarajevo’s leading (and now only) daily. Dizdarevic, whose book Sarajevo: A War Journal came out last year, was the recipient of the 1993 Bruno Kreisky Foundation Prize (Vienna) for his “extraordinary efforts in the fight for human rights and democratic freedom.”
Sontag expressed her personal solidarity by doing a rather unusual thing. She directed a play, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, in battered Sarajevo. What a frivolous thing to do, you might say. Fiddling while Rome burns, Not Quite. Tough Sontag was under no illusion that her act would “make (her) useful in the was (she) could be if (she) were a doctor or a water systems engineer,” she was convinced that it was a symbolically significant gesture as well as being a concrete though small contribution to Sarajevo’s cultural life.
Sarajevo is a culturally sophisticated, cosmopolitan European city with a vibrant theatre and cinema; there was no reason why that cultural vitality shouldn’t continue, even under sniper fire.
“Putting on a play,” says Sontag, “means so much to the theatre professionals in Sarajevo because it allows them to be normal, that is to do what they did before the war: not to be just haulers of water or passive recipients of ‘humanitarian aid.’”
To be “normal” at a time of abnormality? Why not? It’s not to ignore the abnormality, or to anaesthetise oneself to it. Art, unlike CNN news, doesn’t anaesthetise. It enables one, through its transfiguring power, to survive spiritually and morally the tragedy of real life. Yes, even a grim play like Waiting for Godot in a grim city like shattered Sarajevo: in fact, especially a grim play like Waiting for Godot, staged specially for the shattered but still culturally hungry sophisticated Sarajevans.
(Significantly, the other serious plays that were either in rehearsal or performance at about the same time as Sontag’s Godot were two Greek tragedies and an original local play called In Agony!)
Those who understand the meaning of tragic art will understand the paradoxical thing I am saying here. And will understand too that even th inevitable self-mocking “waiting-for-Clinton” joke that the cast of the Waiting for Godot production found themselves indulging in, was a way of transcending and surviving the grim reality.
One of the greatest modern plays was successfully staged in a shell-damaged theatre of the much-battered city with 12 candles on stage (there was no electricity of course.)
At the end of one performance, writes Sontag movingly of this extraordinary event, “on Wednesday, August 18, at 2pm — during the long tragic silence of the Vladimirs and Estragons (Sontag had three pairs of the forlorn tramps and all put on stage and the same time), which follows the messenger’s announcement that Mr Godot isn’t coming today, but will surely come tomorrow … my eyes began to sting with tears … No one in the audience made a sound. The only sounds were those coming from outside the theatre: A UN APC thundering down the street and the crack of sniper fire.”