This text comes courtesy of Antonio Ochoa, the editor of a new collection of Milán’s essays in translation, forthcoming from Shearsman Press in Bristol. Ochoa also edited a translation of selected poetry by Milan in 2012.
Milán’s essay addresses the role of the poet as witness in historicity, both in the present time, and in conversation with the radical aesthetic independence of poetry from politics. In this passage, he begins from an analysis of testimony inherited from Derrida & Ricoeur.
A witness is the one who sees, the one who sees and speaks out, who leaves testimony and inscribes what he sees to the future. But he also says it in the present. Here saying and writing seem momentarily to drift apart. To ‘say in the present’, to not remain silent in the face of an event that demands to be spoken of is, in principle, to speak of a ‘today’, for today. But later that present ceases to be: what was said turns into memory. It becomes memory in two ways. First, it corroborates the present, it bears testimony to the events. Second, it prepares the times, it proposes a model, a ‘should be’. Writing, at this point, without necessarily being exemplary, encounters, begins a dialogue, or questions history. This will depend, specifically, on who is writing.
In our time to bear testimony seems to respond to an imperative character, an urgency, an immediacy. It is not the act of a writer who is positioned at the margins of time that writes a memory for times to come; time here as what could or will be. It is not about ‘transporting’, of shipping from this side of time to another that lies further ahead. There is no such space for a witness today. Therefore, the means for transportation that writing can be for someone’s testimony should not be delayed. Our conception of testimony stems from imminence, from a here and now that must be presented here and now, even though their addressee or destination may receive them later on. Immediacy, here, now. Something terrible is happening, the government of the State of Israel is slaughtering the Palestinian people; there is a threat hanging over all those suspected of not agreeing with the workings of the Empire, those who criticise or those who—according to the Empire’s own paranoid logic—attempt to topple it. To discern the different degrees of dangerousness is also up to the Empire. And when empires feel threatened they are not very competent at discerning.
To bear testimony is to say this, right here, even if it’s not enough, even if it’s not partial enough. I write ‘partial’ in order to exclude the word ‘objectivity’ from the get-go, an aggregate, not a value, I believe, traditionally assigned to a testimony as a token of authenticity. The meaning is not the same for a witness at a wedding than for the witness of a massacre, a legal witness is not the same as a religious one. We are simply talking about the human witness, who sees and observes, and knows what has been seen and observed; one that knows what may or may not be done with that, that may or may not write about that. In the latter case, to have seen, to know, and yet not to speak out when the act witnessed was an act against humanity cannot be compared to the silent attitude so dear to the mystics. Such silence cannot be compared to that ‘understanding without understanding’ so close to San Juan de la Cruz; an understanding that we are here not to see but to not-see. Our interlocutor now is not God—as noted by Hölderlin when he asks: ‘and who wants poets at all in lean years?’ Our interlocutor is man, the concrete historical man, precisely this man that we are now. Yet the answer to this question seems to point to the writer. That is, the one who handles words in accord with his imagination, and not only in accordance with the reality of the world and the register of specific events that point to reality. An operative discernment becomes necessary, because, in my opinion, it is impossible to write today without bearing testimony to our burning historical time.
A detail from Otto Dix’s Stormtroops Advancing Under a Gas Attack, from his 1924 set of first world war drawings, Der Kreig. Photograph: British Museum/DACS
After the Holocaust Adorno distrusted the effectiveness of poetic writing in a time like ours. He demanded a ‘negativity’ from writing, which only Paul Celan or Samuel Beckett were able to incorporate in their writing. And due to Celan’s writing, Adorno rectifies those claims. Adorno wanted the trail, the memory of impossibility as an indelible mark upon the body of writing, as if the sign of the terrible, or of what is not known how to say besides the driving breath of writing itself turning that memory into an active textual present. Or simply, ‘in order not to forget.’ But forget what? Not the impossibility, which has always been present in writing—at least since the Baroque in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Rather, so we don’t forget our insistence on that impossibility.
Such insistence on the impossibility is an ethical condition in order to be able to formulate the question of writing. This determining ethics is the bedrock of a testimonial act, a ritually testimonial act. Or the ritual of a permanent testimony that writing has not been able to abandon since the mid-twentieth century. But next to that ethical condition Adorno asked for another one, that of a writing fully aware of itself, a writing that would not dare forget that it is precisely just that: writing. This double condition, memory as ethics and self-awareness, has been fundamental for the profound transformation of contemporary writing. Above all, these are conditions counteract any effect of complicity between poetic writing and an established, pernicious order, which poetry could ‘naively’ manifest. Writing, then, should be considered as a body, at the same time it should not be considered as memory. That is, writing should not have any consideration as a registry, for what it evokes runs above and through writing.
To be continued…
Helena Miguélez is Senior Lecturer in Hispanic Studies Bangor University in Wales.
Eduardo Milán is the author of over thirty books of poetry, essays, and translations. Born in Uruguay in the border city of Rivera in 1952, he shared the geographical and cultural closeness of Brazil and through his mother he inherited its language also. In the late 1970s he left Uruguay due to the repressive political climate and the incarceration of this father. He settled in Mexico City where he still lives.
Born in Mexico City, Antonio Ochoa is a poet, essay writer, and translator. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.