what must be heard

It is not the office of art to spotlight alternatives, but to resist by its form alone the course of a world that is always putting a pistol to men’s heads.

–Theodor Adorno, “On Commitment,” 1961

was gesagt werden muss“/”what must be said,” Guenter Grass’s superficially not very poetic poetic response to current events involving Germans, Israelis, Iranians and all of the rest of the world, is dominated, and justified, by a nearly impossible to comprehend recognition emerging from that murderously coercive course of the world that Adorno juxtaposed to art: The wheel of historical fortune has turned in such a way that the national heirs of Nazism (of the genocidal) are supplying delivery vehicles for weapons of mass destruction (weapons of genocide) to the heirs of Zionism (and of genocide).

A full discussion of Grass’s poem, perhaps beginning with the particulars of several dubious translations and of the misreadings they have amplified, perhaps examining its peculiar failure as poetry and as politics and its directly connected success as poetry and as politics, possibly investigating its apparent violation of Adorno’s idea of art after Auschwitz under a simultaneous fulfillment of that same idea, will have to wait – will have to be allowed to unfold or be actively unfolded in poetic time, the time for “form alone,” not in political time, the time under the gun.

For now what must be considered (or what I think ought to be considered but strongly suspect will not and perhaps cannot be considered) is this: A poem is not an op-ed, even a poem that appears among op-eds and that adopts the banal and abstract language and subject matters of op-eds and other disposable political discussion. To whatever extent a poem’s “argument” is taken as and treated like the argument of a political analysis, it has been mis-taken and mis-treated. Even where a poem takes up current events, it does so in relation to a kind of time, or orientation toward time, other than political.

* * *

(The poetic present moment, even-especially the present moment of an openly political poem, is an articulation of politics or history in relation to that which is or would be beyond or other than politics or history, the metaphorical or eternal, not just the moral or spiritual but the idea or possibility of the moral or spiritual, of ideas and possibilities at all. In this very peculiar way, the conception and extinction of peoples is where politics intersects with poetry. (This topic belongs to poetic time also: Its eruption in political time emanates from and points to mass suicide and mass murder – from and to the end of politics, from and to madness.))

* * *

Critics responding to Grass’s madly sane poem, singing from what appears to be the same hymnal, have been quick to assure the world that the German “U-boots” modified to carry nuclear-capable missiles refer only and exclusively to a “Second Strike” capacity, but Second Strike has no special standing in eternity, or for that matter even in the more reconditely mad calculations of military strategy and deterrence theory. Dipping into that realm requires one to suppress or set aside any “sane” reaction to the prospect or threat of the annihilation of thousands or millions of people under an unpredictable logic of war, and this setting-aside is precisely what the poet refuses to do when he ventures to say “what must be said.”

What the poet says in just a few words, and can assume without spelling it out in the think tank-language of madness that pretends to be sane, is that the possession of a Second Strike capacity – in the form of submarine-borne missiles with “allesvernichtende” warheads – does not and cannot merely remain on the level of protection against being “First-Struck.” It could not serve that purpose without at the same time protecting the possessor’s real ability to strike first. It could not serve either purpose without in itself constituting a significant independent threat – year after year after year, not just for the purposes of this season’s political negotiations under this year’s set of leaders.

Neither Guenter Grass, nor Jeffrey Goldberg, nor any editor of Commentary, The Atlantic, Der Spiegel, or Al-Jazeera, nor this blogger, knows anything with any certainty about the uses or potential uses of those submarines and whatever weapons they carry, or where, this year, or next year…

The poet does not need to spell all of this out to have “said” it: He needs only to note that the national heirs of Nazism are supplying the heirs of Zionism delivery systems for weapons of mass destruction. Dread, fearful uncertainty, and the recollection of past historical nightmares are in this context perfectly natural, sanely mad responses. Whether those responses are politically right or wrong or useful or harmful is another question, or set of questions, but they are not poetic questions. The poetic questions would be something more on the order of “What do these questions and answers sound like, look like, feel like in words?” – not “What are the definitive practical-political purposes given the state of negotiations and intelligence…?” and so on.

None of this is meant to deny that Grass is speaking to politics and “real” issues, that he has attempted or enacted a poetic intervention in political matters. “Was gesagt werden muss“/”what must be said” implies an irruption of the poetic-irrational, even the prophetic, within the political-rational, a forcing of the poetic-prophetic response at the limits of the political, at the precise moment where the irrationality of the rational has become intolerable.

The bulk of the poem represents an attempt to re-rationalize or administer the madness by a political-military amateur. The poet proposes a set of political measures that might make him feel less afraid of what future history, under iron laws of irony, may do with the possibly good, entirely understandable intentions of the German government and its Israeli ally.

The poet’s most bureaucratically crassly and tediously neutral words in favor of international control over the mass-annihilative weaponry in the possession of Israel and possibly in the possession of enemies of Israel are also only poetry, wishes, fantasies in response to nightmares – are a grasping toward what might eliminate the dread, quiet the recollections and symmetrical premonitions of infinite remorse – are what could no longer be contained in deference to other merely personal fears, are what had to be said, and must be heard, yet may not be, even so.

36 comments on “what must be heard

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  1. Salman Rushdie

    OK to dislike, even be disgusted by #GünterGrass poem, but to ban him is infantile pique. The answer to words must always be other words.

  2. does this thing read any better in German?

    it’s an absurdity on every level in the linked translation.

    maybe you ought to accept the common understanding of nuclear subs, CK. there’s no advantage to having them as a first-strike option……

    • Yes, it reads better in German. All of the translations that I’ve seen are marked by some rather bizarre interpretations that make his views seem even more peculiar than they are.

      I think you’re wrong about submarine-borne warheads being useful exclusively in the second strike scenario of classic deterrence theory, not that the basic morality of deterrence theory, as well as the sanity of it, isn’t highly questionable anyway.

      I understand very well that the idea is that the missiles would never have to be used. I’m old enough to have frequently imbibed whole 12-packs of deterrence theory in a single sitting, back when it was a topic of seemingly pressing importance in re the USSR. The fact remains that submarine-borne nuclear missiles are incredibly fearsome weapons in themselves, and all the more if deployed with the intention of doing maximum damage to soldiers and children and other living things. With a mere handful of relatively low yield nuclear warheads set to detonate simultaneously over a relatively large area, you can in theory produce the same effect as a much higher yield detonation – since the energy of intersecting blasts is additive: I don’t know if anyone, the Soviets maybe, ever actually carried out the experiment, but it’s very impressive on paper, and would be very impressive over some enemy population center.

      So I understand that the idea is that the subs supposedly protect against a possible first strike by preserving a capacity for some form of “massive retaliation” – including some version of wiping out the enemy nation-state, at least militarily and administratively, possibly as a functioning entity at all, almost certainly with very high civilian casualties and immense damage.

      Since a classic “first strike” remains far beyond the likely capacity of Iran, maybe the justification can be taken as “deter anyone from even thinking of trying to develop a first strike capacity.” Unfortunately, the existence of nuclear capacities seem to have the precise opposite effect: It seems to convince “rogue” or “outsider” or “recalcitrant” smaller powers that having even a small nuclear capacity can be very worthwhile, in a number of ways.

      Yet, again, whatever the strategic assumptions and calculations, the weapons themselves remain platforms for the delivery of mass-destructive/murderous warheads – in this case being provided by one very particular country to another very particular country, the latter in the “region occupied by madness.” The German government and others seem to presume that no one would ever conceive of some other use – potential or kinetic – for them, that they will remain under the control in perpetuity of the kind of people worthy of trust. From a certain perspective, people in general have not earned such trust.

    • So, back in the good ol’ Cold War days, it would always be pointed out that having a massive second strike capacity meant that, if you could get away with a first counterforce strike, you would retain the capacity to deter the other side with an implicit counterpopulation or extended strike in case, with whatever remnant capacity they had left, they decided to retaliate. The way it often worked out in war games and other scenarios is that in a crisis situation the escalation would occur via stages, in which the theoretical First and Second Strike weapons would instead be fired off tit for tat and in dribs and drabs until finally someone reached the use-it or lose-it or give-in stage. And the forces were supposedly designed to convince the other side that you absolutely would retaliate even if there was nothing in it for you at all except revenge. For some extended period both sides were claiming that they were ready to wipe out each other out and put the very survival of civilization in doubt – just to make a VERY IMPORTANT point. We were supposedly even going to risk it on behalf of our allies… That’s part of what made it all so MAD.

      And so even GG garbles some stuff, I think there’s justification for him to recoil against the insanity of his country playing a role in bringing all of THAT and moreto the ME.

  3. Israel doesn’t have a significant air compliment, like the US has with the B-52s, so the subs would supposedly provide the advantage, the Iranians have Russian Kilos; which are better than whatever the Germans are handing out.

  4. Yes, but only a tiny compliment are nuc lear capable, Grass has been known for saying stupid things, since the 80s, more than Heinrich Boll, less than Rolf Hochhuth,

          • Are going”? No, not anyone with meaningful cred-shreds.

            But a “nuclear first strike” is usually targeted on forces, not populations and economies and bases of civilizations, though sometimes populations and economies and bases of civilizations kinda get in the way, especially if things don’t stay nicely contained.

            You didn’t answer my question. What do you presume the second strike, assuming everyone plays by the rules, is supposed to entail?

    • Don’t remember where I read it, but the Israelis supposedly had the Germans modify the the launching systems to handle missiles that could deliver large, presumably nuclear warheads. There are further indications to the effect that the subs are intended as second strike platforms (“launch cruise missiles deep into Iran,” nuclear-related “rumors”) in the piece you link.

        • http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/08/24/AR2006082401050.html

          With the purchase of two more German-made Dolphin submarines capable of carrying nuclear warheads, military experts say Israel is sending a clear message to Iran that it can strike back if attacked by nuclear weapons.

          The purchases come at a time when Iran is refusing to bow to growing Western demands to halt its nuclear program, and after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for Israel to be “wiped off the map.”

          The new submarines, built at a cost of $1.3 billion with Germany footing one-third of the bill, have diesel-electric propulsion systems that allow them to remain submerged for longer periods of time than the three nuclear arms-capable submarines already in Israel’s fleet, the Jerusalem Post reported.

          The latest submarines not only would be able to carry out a first strike should Israel choose to do so, but they also would provide Israel with crucial second-strike capabilities, said Paul Beaver, a London-based independent defense analyst.

          Don’t know nuthin bout no Paul Beavers, but what he is said to have said stands to reason, as I’ve already explained: Any weapon good enough to hold in reserve for a 2nd Strike is pretty darn terrific for a wide range of other purposes.

          If you want to track them down, there are more references in the footnotes at the Wikipedia article on Dolphin class subs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dolphin_class_submarine

          The general understanding is that the subs at a minimum give the Izzys a potential or theoretical expanded sub-launched nuke capacity – certainly a lot closer to a “real” capacity than, say, the NorK threat to the U.S. West Coast or the theoretical Iranian threat to the ME and Europe for bombs it doesn’t yet have to be turned into warheads it may be able to manufacture possibly to be affixed to missiles that may work.

          • and again, why would it be better to launch a first strike from a sub rather than home. they already can easily reach any part of Iran with the 50+ warheads mounted on 5000km range missiles. the subs slightly augment the capability for a nuclear first-strike and complicates the problem of providing a defense.

            AFAIK they’re more likely to add to a non-nuclear strike capability.

            but I don’t really know my elbow from a rubber biscuit.

            if only a complete and happy Kid would opine.

            • Where you getting your specs on the warheads and the missiles they’re mounted on? Do we know how accurate they are? Have they been proven?

              Don’t really know exactly how the Israelis contemplate using their triad. Could be they just want to keep people guessing. Could be the Iranians aren’t the only ones they want to have a “minimum credible deterrent” against… now or 10 years from now.

              I forgive a poet for not exercising frog-like vigilance and skepticism regarding what he’s read in any of several hoity-toity mags from Beaver-y analysts about what the subs are for. Could be the mags are wrong.

              As I’ve been saying, he’s not a defense analyst, or a pundit. He’s a writer crying out with his “last ink.”

              • the stats about the # of warheads and missiles, including range, came from Jane’s and IIRC are from 2004 or 2006….the info is not readily available to me right now or on this machine or I would throw up the link.

                I’m never gonna stop regarding him as a novelist, but poet might be a stretch unless he’s some right to a mulligan for this blotting of the copy book

                Here’s two other poems…….. rank them with GG’s and tell us which is best.

                What is Liquid?

                Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle

                All that doth flow we cannot liquid name
                Or else would fire and water be the same;
                But that is liquid which is moist and wet
                Fire that property can never get.
                Then ’tis not cold that doth the fire put out
                But ’tis the wet that makes it die, no doubt.


                Attempted Assassination of the Queen

                William McGonagall

                God prosper long our noble Queen,
                And long may she reign!
                Maclean he tried to shoot her,
                But it was all in vain.
                For God He turned the ball aside
                Maclean aimed at her head;
                And he felt very angry
                Because he didn’t shoot her dead.

                There’s a divinity that hedges a king,
                And so it does seem,
                And my opinion is, it has hedged
                Our most gracious Queen.

                Maclean must be a madman,
                Which is obvious to be seen,
                Or else he wouldn’t have tried to shoot
                Our most beloved Queen.

                Victoria is a good Queen,
                Which all her subjects know,
                And for that God has protected her
                From all her deadly foes.

                She is noble and generous,
                Her subjects must confess;
                There hasn’t been her equal
                Since the days of good Queen Bess.

                Long may she be spared to roam
                Among the bonnie Highland floral,
                And spend many a happy day
                In the palace of Balmoral.

                Because she is very kind
                To the old women there,
                And allows them bread, tea, and sugar,
                And each one get a share.

                And when they know of her coming,
                Their hearts feel overjoy’d,
                Because, in general, she finds work
                For men that’s unemploy’d.

                And she also gives the gipsies money
                While at Balmoral, I’ve been told,
                And, mind ye, seldom silver,
                But very often gold.

                I hope God will protect her
                By night and by day,
                At home and abroad,
                When she’s far away.

                May He be as a hedge around her,
                As he’s been all along,
                And let her live and die in peace
                Is the end of my song.

  5. Except one needs to consider the context, the continuum from Rafsanjani to Ahmadinejad who have threatened to use the bomb in one way or another,

    • Old crap that we’ve been through over and over again before. One more time, neither threatened to “use the bomb.” Neither has ever had the capacity to “use the bomb”: Neither was in possession of “the bomb,” or possessed the power to order the “use” of “the bomb” that they didn’t and don’t have. The bomb that they might possibly be in a position to “use” doesn’t have the uses attributed to it.

      It’s a toxic cocktail that combines a tiny portion of sensible concern with multiple parts propaganda, paranoia, and self-fulfilling prophecy – enough to drive… 84-year-old Germans to publish anti-poetic poems and take the punishment.

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  1. […] Beinart (whose book is on my list) gets at another aspect of the fear or premonition that, as I was just suggesting, must be heard in Grass’s poem: Zionism has not always been a consensus position in American […]

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