A Meditation on Every Day.
War is no longer declared,
but rather continued. The outrageous
has become the everyday. The hero
is absent from the battle. The weak
are moved into the firing zone.
The uniform of the day is patience,
the order of merit is the wretched star
of hope over the heart.
It is awarded
when nothing more happens,
when the bombardment is silenced,
when the enemy has become invisible
and the shadow of eternal weapons
covers the sky.
It is awarded for deserting the flag,
for bravery before a friend,
for the betrayal of shameful secrets
and the disregard
of every command. – Ingeborg Bachmann.
This poem struck me as a meditation suitable for our times. The sort of harsh prayer that can stand as a true human activity in the face of our inheritance of perpetual crises and terror. A hard hope; unflinching and wretched light that illuminates the human heart not with grandeur or illusion, but with the steadiness of a desperate love.
What other love could brook the sea of despair but a desperate love? In this climate of war, the trickle of sanity that still holds forth the hope of a human act; an act become impossibly criminal and unreasonable in the day of unreason. We need name no names here, for it is well known that we struggle not against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities. It is worth noting, though, that Bachmann composed these verses against the backdrop, not of Nazism or the Second World War, but in the days heading towards the Cold War, when global threat was elevated to the level of political dogma. What become of the everyday when every inclination of the world powers is towards violence, exclusion, threat, and the strategies of death? The classical hero is useless in such a situation, since he is motivated by the outbursts of bravery achieved only in the physical violence of struggle. The flag draped across the shoulders and caskets of these soldiers offers no comfort or redemption for the deeper betrayal which they have effected – that of friend, family, and fellow human. The spectre of rabid nationalism, that persistent ghost which haunts the human psyche always with more or less violence, did not disappear in 1945. As Bachmann herself acerbically observed fascism did not magically disappear in 1945 “just because murder is no longer distinguished, demanded, and supported by the awarding of medals.” It has not disappeared now.
At the level of everyday ethics and politics, then, we need to have a distance from the powers of state and the violence of collective desire. In the face of perpetual war, peace appears as the transgressor. The emblem of the peaceful protester facing off against the armed forces, against the police in their neurotic riot shields is a familiar sight. The everyday warrior – the peaceful soldier – wears in place of all that gear only the threadbare uniform of patience. Struggle is constant, daily, and will continue unabated. There is no victory, no final and decisive battle. This new hero, who goes to the firing lines in utter weakness, will not be glorified in the form of a statue. Her praises will not be sung in the schools of the nation. She will be given no plaque, awarded no medal, offered no recognition.
Yet, the tone of the poem is far from despairing. Despair, after all, is a creature of violence, a creature which doubts peace and disavows the uniform of patience. The wretched star of hope is to be the order of merit. The very wretchedness of this star forbids the exaltation of a false hope, the illusory hope of grand and final victory. It is awarded, rather, when nothing more happens. Our obsession with novelty, newsworthiness – with great and grand gestures – betrays the reality that for nothing to happen opens up a space for truly human activity. For the life that is beyond spectacle, that bears no desire for worldly fame.
This reversal of the roles of importance, in which friendship takes precedence over national pride, and truth is valued above obedience, is a message which needs to be heard again and again. The flags have again begun to rally the great human mass to their message of division and hatred. Indeed, they have never stopped. The flag has always been there, as a symbol of unity by exclusion, as a symbol of inhuman loyalty. It is time, and past time, to reclaim our human birthright. To stand as brave, not in the eyes of the nation, but in the eyes of a friend. To disregard the commands and laws which elevate the basest impulses of the human soul to the level of executive power and juridical authority.
We need accept no order of merit but that wretched star. That hope which springs eternal, not because we are foolish or optimistic, but because we are caught in the grip of a wild and desperate love which never despairs.