We who fight monsters

Ours is a war that has swept us into a continuous state of high alert. That’s at the heart of our paranoia.

Bilal Tanweer June 06, 2011
Remember that last scene in the movie Titanic when the ship is sinking but the band of musicians carries on playing the song “Nearer My God to Thee”? It’s routinely cited to illustrate the utter imbecility of men blinded from the obvious. I have thought of it the same way — except, now, when I try to write these lines. Now, I really wish I could do what those men did. Detach myself from the situation and go on to talk about poetry, and point out the niceties of form and imagery.

I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed but I have guarded this virtual territory of 600-fortnightly-words from the encroachment of the (non-literary) world. But for once, with the kind of week this was, it is impossible to sit tight and buttress one’s own fortress of contemplation. For once, I don’t wish any poetry to bear me off irrevocably elsewhere. I want to be here, now, and understand what’s going on around me.

Poetry and Being
by Sukanta Bhattacharya

No more of this poetry.
Bring on the hard, harsh prose instead.
Let the jingle of verse disappear
And the strong hammer of prose strike.
No need for the serenity of a poem;
Poetry, I give you a break today.

In the regime of hunger, the earth belongs to prose,
The full moon burns like a loaf of bread.

In an essay on war experiences, an American soldier, Nathaniel Fick, makes this acute observation: “One of war’s more jarring traits is that it sweeps normal people into its maelstrom and carries them along to places they never imagined they’d be.” He goes on to recount a routine morning during his duty in Iraq. “I clearly remember munching a granola bar one morning in Iraq when my Marines saw a man sneaking toward us with an AK-47. After giving the order to shoot him, I went back to my breakfast.”

Our serving military officers will also be full of such tales. Except with one major difference: Fick is lucky that after participating in the war, he could still return to spending time in disinterested contemplation. Not us. At least not most of us — perhaps, the military men and their families stand the best chance, with their residences located in cordoned-off cantonments and housing societies. But even they are hardly safe. Ours is a war that has swept us into a continuous state of high alert. That’s at the heart of our paranoia.

Among this war’s most devastating consequences is that it has robbed us of spaces — physical, mental — of disinterested contemplation. When universities are on terror threat lists and a naval base is under attack less than three kilometres away from your house where you are trying to pen a column on poetry, the only form of contemplation possible is one that entails perpetual anxiety and deep anguish. In Pakistan, whether we like it or not, we are now incapable of disinterested thought. Just hear the discourse. We are all either agitated-thinkers or, thinking-agitators.

Nietzsche, in yet another moment of sublime insight, remarked “He who fights monsters might take care lest he thereby becomes a monster.” The counter-question I have always asked of this question “Is it possible to fight monsters without becoming one?”

I have maintained emphatically, continually, that poetry should be read disinterestedly. But then there are days and weeks, like the past week, when poetry must be rested. But on days that follow, poetry can show us what the mode of our reflection must be.

And irrespective of the answer to my counter-question to Nietzsche, we must take care not to become monsters ourselves. That ought to be the struggle.

Published in The Express Tribune.
Bilal Tanweer A writer and translator who teaches creative writing at LUMS.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Zaid | 13 years ago | Reply We became monsters long time ago, its only that we are realising it when all the bad stuff started happening in our own playground. Great article by the way, I totally agree none of us can separate our selves from what is happening.
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