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.
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(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.))
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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.