Step 1 – Setting Out: Listening Otherwise
Imagine your plane descending slowly; it would be evening, and you see an ocean of lights, and lights, and lights. ‘Surely we can’t be in Mexico City yet?’ you think. As the plane circles over the city, the little boy across the aisle calls out: ‘Look at the lights! Look at the lights! Look at all the lights! All those lights!’ The delight in his voice spreads throughout the cabin; a happy cheerful laughter takes hold of one passenger after another, and everyone starts applauding.
This is one sensation I remember from my first time in Mexico: peoples’ responsiveness and welcome to the delight and joy felt by others. But there is another sensation, which I remember as acutely: social reality is a concrete wall between human beings and life. Politics is what keeps it in place and does the maintenance. I’d abstractly known about this wall before, but I’d never seen it. I’d never felt it. That is a manifestation of privilege: to not see the wall for all the pretty pictures that are painted on it. That is the trap of privilege: when we feel ‘happy’ and ‘safe’ only as long as we do not recognize and feel the pain of the social reality that separates us and others from life. To borrow from Bertolt Brecht, This is how we pass the time that is given to us on earth.
There are many pretty pictures on the wall to keep us happy and distracted on the SafeSide. We invent painkillers that anaesthesize the pain caused by the loss of passion and desire. We wrap ourselves in layers of cotton wool so that we cannot feel the reverbarations of the pain that we have caused others, and that we keep causing. We keep ourselves busy by looking at the pictures, or painting the pictures, or building towers high enough to look across the wall and analyse what’s on the other side. Some of us climb up there, turn their back to the wall and look out. I believe this is called ‘dreaming.’ This is how we pass the time that is given to us on earth.
Some of us stay closer to the ground, and look with pity upon those to whom the cotton wool is not available; so we charitably ship them some and feel better about the wall. For, we aren’t all equal on the SafeSide. Many are pushed to the margins; some are forgotten; some are elevated, applauded and recognized. We are told that those of us who are exceptionally smart and special may get to re-arrange the conditions. The best thing most of us can aspire to is a nicer place with a better view. But availability is limited, so we have to compete. This is how we pass the time that is given to us on earth.
Some of us create better painkillers for ourselves and those who are like us; and they invent cheaper cotton wools for those who can’t afford any. Some of us paint graffiti on the wall and others analyse it. We develop critical frameworks to determine which graffiti is better than the others, or the best; we even study how exactly it is held in place and how we can make it stick a little better. This is how we pass the time that is given to us on earth.
Occasionally someone writes or paints a graffiti on the wall which says something like ‘THIS IS A WALL AND NOT A CANVAS.’ As academics we analyse it, as critics we evaluate it. We might be critical of sticking things on walls to cover them up; we might ponder the possibility of subversion. This is how we pass the time that is given to us on earth.
Do we know how to do otherwise?
Theodor Adorno wrote that poetry ceases to be poetry when it becomes consolation; to him, poetry was poetry only when it acknowledges the wound it bears. Adorno wrote this in the 1960s. Since then, we’ve come to consider consolation to be intellectually appealing, morally sound, and a service to humanity.
In December 2005 I left Mexico for the first time. I came back in January 2007, and I saw something in the eyes of the friends and strangers I had come to love that hadn’t been there before. 2006: the Zapatistas’ other campaign, the repression in Atenco, the uprising and the repression in Oaxaca. I know how to respond to literary expressions of such pain and such passion with an authoritative analysis. I’ve even done it; it meant that I had to separate my heart, my mind, and my senses; it meant that I judged and didn’t share. I won’t do it again, and I won’t teach you.
How to do otherwise?
What happens when you’re faced with expressions of such pain and such passion and you don’t judge, evaluate, acclaim or disdain; when you don’t separate your heart, your mind and your senses as you tell people on the SafeSide what you’ve seen and heard? Some people will applaud the effort. Some people will tell you to pull yourself together because analysis is about internal distance and your approach is inappropriate. Some people will give you sweets or a tissue or a hug, they’ll tell you it’s not so bad or maybe it is that bad but that’s the way it is. Some will offer you things they think you might want. But if you’re someone who lets such passion and such pain get to you, then you come to realize that consolation, even when it comes from generosity, is an invitation to eclipse yourself, to betray yourself, to forget about those who have a likened pain and who share your passions, to dispense with their company.
We have to learn how to do otherwise. Now is a good time to start.
We don’t need consolation; we don’t need to be given things; we need to share.
Let’s practice writing as conversation, reading as conversation, thought as conversation. A conversation that is guided by the refusal to respond to one’s own and others’ pain and hope with objectivity, distance, irony, judgement.
Conversation is the alternative to cotton wool and painkillers.
Conversation is about learning how to hold each other and a situation with a fingertip touch that is sometimes a word and sometimes a gaze and sometimes an embrace. In this touch we can look at what can’t be spoken and find new words. We can walk up to the wall, find the fissures, and we can start chipping away, tunnel to the foundations, create another chance for this world to become the place where peace can be built with work and dignity, as the Subcomandante Marcos put it.
So: I’m not a critic and this blog is not going to give you the new cutting-edge underground writers and poets of Mexico. It’s an opportunity to start learning how to listen without cotton wool or painkillers; how to listen otherwise.